All Emory Ellis wanted was breakfast at Burger King.

What he got instead: Three months in the county jail--for doing absolutely nothing wrong, according to a new lawsuit--and a battle against baseless criminal charges that could have meant a life sentence in prison. 

There's a story behind the story, of course.

A worker at the Boston Burger King where Ellis tried to get food apparently thought the $10 bill he was offering to pay with, was counterfeit.

A dispute ensued. The employee refused to give Ellis the food or return the money.

Police were called--and Ellis wound up charged with forgery of a bank note. He then was locked up without bail, because his arrest triggered the violation of his probation on a prior, unrelated, conviction.

It took three months, according to a lawsuit Ellis filed, for the charges to be dropped--and only then after the U.S. Secret Service reviewed the $10 bill and determined that the money wasn't even counterfeit.

If that sounds insane, it is. But, Ellis, now 37, is black, and at the time all this happened back in November 2015, he was homeless.

And the whole thing is coming to light against the backdrop of a nationwide debate about race discrimination in stores and restaurants--and about when it's really necessary to call the police.

"A person like me would've gotten an apology, but a person like Emory somehow finds his way in handcuffs for trying to pay for his breakfast with real money," said Ellis's attorney, Justin Drechsler, who is white--and who is reportedly the exact same age, down to the day, told the media.

In this case, getting authorities involved sounds like it quickly escalated the issue to incredible heights.

Passing counterfeit money is a 20-year felony in the federal courts, according to Michael Dye, a criminal defense attorney. And, the Massachusetts state law under which Ellis was charged actually does carries a theoretical life sentence.

"Nothing should happen to an individual who inadvertently or mistakenly passes a counterfeit bill," said Dye, who is not involved in this case. "The criminal offense requires the intent to defraud. So the individual would have to know that the bill was counterfeit and use it anyways."

Mind-bogglingly, this wasn't even a matter of inadvertently passing legitimately counterfeit money. According to the lawsuit, federal investigators determined that the money wasn't even counterfeit.

Burger King Corp. declined to comment on pending litigation according to reports, and the franchisee of the individual Boston restaurant where Ellis tried to get breakfast, couldn't be reached.

The suit says he suffered "substantial emotional distress," as frankly, anybody would:

Beyond the public humiliation and shame associated with his arrest and imprisonment, he suffered sleeplessness, anxiety, and depression associated with defending himself against this baseless charge that exposed him to a potential criminal sanction of life in prison. ... [The] transparent discrimination against Mr. Ellis, who could not even purchase his breakfast without being harassed, continues to resonate with Mr. Ellis and causes ongoing emotional distress.

Ellis is asking for $950,000 in damages. Maybe he should add another $10 to make up for the completely legitimate, non-counterfeit bill that started the whole thing--and that he says he never got back.

Published on: May 26, 2018
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