Homeless man files lawsuit after wrongfully arrested for using counterfeit $10 bill at Burger King

“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.”

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Image Credit: Kacper Pempel/REUTERS

Incarcerated for more than three months after falsely accused of using a counterfeit $10 bill at Burger King, a homeless man recently filed a lawsuit against the fast food corporation and the store franchisee for nearly $1 million for racial and economic discrimination. The lawsuit follows in the wake of Starbucks apologizing to two black men after an employee called the police to arrest them for not purchasing anything and a white Yale student calling the police to arrest a black graduate student who had fallen asleep while studying.

In November 2015, a black homeless man named Emory Ellis entered a Burger King in Boston and ordered breakfast. When Ellis attempted to pay with a $10 bill, the cashier accused him of trying to pay with counterfeit money.

After refusing to return Ellis’ cash, the cashier threatened to call the police if he did not leave. Ellis was subsequently arrested and charged with forgery of a bank note.

Because his arrest triggered a probation violation, Ellis was held without bail until his final probation violation hearing. Prosecutors finally dropped the forgery charge in February 2016 after the Secret Service confirmed that the $10 bill was not counterfeit. According to his lawsuit, Ellis never got his money back.

“I know that had I walked into the Burger King with the exact same $10 bill, nobody would have scrutinized it,” Ellis’s attorney, Justin Drechsler, who is white, told The Washington Post. “I never would have been accused of anything. I certainly wouldn’t have had the police called on me, no matter what the series of events.”

Drechsler added, “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.”

Ellis filed his lawsuit this week in Suffolk Superior Court. He is seeking $950,000 in damages from Burger King Corp. and Two Guys Foods, Inc., the franchisee, for emotional distress, public humiliation, shame, and causing him to lose more than three months in jail for a crime that he did not commit.

According to court documents, Ellis suffered from “sleeplessness, anxiety and depression associated with defending himself against this baseless charge that exposed him to a potential criminal sanction of life in prison.”

Besides the two men arrested at the Starbucks in Philadelphia and the graduate student who fell asleep at Yale, five black women were reported to the police last month for golfing too slowly at a Pennsylvania golf club. Although a Burger King spokesperson condemned discrimination “of any kind,” the company refused to comment on Ellis’s case.

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