U.Va. arrest raises questions about agency’s powers
Richmond, Va. — An arrest that left a University of Virginia student bloodied and shouting allegations of racism has prompted some lawmakers to question whether state liquor control agents should have the power to arrest people.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe ordered the Virginia State Police to investigate the early-Wednesday arrest of Martese Johnson, who needed 10 stitches to close a gash on his head after his encounter with Alcoholic Beverage Control agents outside a Charlottesville bar. State police said that an “administrative review” will be conducted along with a criminal investigation requested by the Charlottesville prosecutor.
“We owe it to both Mr. Johnson and the Virginia ABC to be painstakingly thorough in determining the facts of the situation through interviews, evidence collection and analysis, and investigative procedure,” Virginia State Police Superintendent Col. W. Steven Flaherty said in a written statement.
However, some legislators have already seen enough from alcohol board’s law enforcement arm to suggest it cannot handle having the same arrest powers as police. The 20-year-old Johnson’s arrest — captured in photos and videos and widely spread on social media — came nearly two years after ABC agents traumatized another U.Va. student by swarming her car after mistaking a carton of sparkling water for beer. The student, Elizabeth Daly, was 20 at the time.
“Given what happened yesterday and what happened a couple of years ago, it raises some serious questions in my mind whether they should have arrest powers,” state Sen. Donald McEachin of Henrico County said in a telephone interview Thursday.
After the Daly incident, Rockbridge County Republican Del. Ben Cline introduced legislation in the 2014 session to give state police enforcement of the state’s alcohol laws. Cline said the ABC is inherently a regulatory body and that state police are better suited for enforcing liquor laws.
“It would provide more consistency — just a better application of the law to have it enforced by a single entity like the state police,” Cline said.
He said he may pursue the legislation again if he’s re-elected. McEachin said he, too, might consider sponsoring such legislation, but he wants to see what the state police investigations produce first.
That could be a problem. State police also investigated the Daly incident, but the attorney general’s office successfully fought a motion to release the investigative report as part of a federal lawsuit filed by Daly that the state paid $212,500 to settle. The ABC Department — the target of the state police investigation — released a summary of the findings. But officials said the report was exempt from disclosure under the state Freedom of Information Act because it included personnel information.
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy, noting the personnel exemption, said “we will make public whatever we can. We recognize the expectation to communicate with people what happened here.”
Michael Kelly, spokesman for Attorney General Mark Herring, said the AG’s office “will work with the governor and State Police to release as much information as possible.”
The recent killings of two unarmed black men by white police officers in Missouri and New York have heightened racial tensions and sparked national debate about law enforcement and race.
Both the state police and ABC’s law enforcement arm report to Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran.
A photo of the arrest showed Johnson on the pavement, his face bloodied, being held down by an unidentified officer. In a dark and hard-to-see video, Johnson — who is black — can be heard repeatedly calling the white officers (expletive) racists.
Johnson appeared at a news conference Thursday evening, accompanied by his attorney who read a statement from the injured man.
“As the officers held me down, one thought raced through my mind: how could this happen?” the statement read. “I trust the scars will one day heal, but the trauma of what the officers did will stay with me forever.”
After Johnson’s attorney, Daniel Watkins, read the statement, neither he nor Johnson took any questions. Johnson’s mother, Dychea Johnson, flew in from Chicago and attended the news conference with another son, Michael.
About 1,000 students attended a rally for Johnson at U.Va. Wednesday night.
Johnson was charged on two counts: obstruction of justice without force, and public swearing or intoxication, Charlottesville General District Court records show.
ABC spokeswoman Valerie Hubbard declined to comment Thursday on calls to revoke arrest powers the department has had since its inception. The department has about 130 sworn officers across the state who received the same training as other police officers.
Hubbard said three agents involved in the arrest have been put on administrative duty while state police investigate.