University of Virginia student Martese Johnson, center, and his lawyer, Daniel Watkins, right, speak to the media after Johnson's hearing at the Charlottesville District Court on March 26 in Charlottesville, Va. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Agents working for Virginia’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control issued more arrest warrants to minors for buying or having alcohol than to stores for selling to underage drinkers in 2014, agency records show.

The statistics, which The Washington Post obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request, shed some light on the ways in which the agency in charge of the state’s liquor monopoly also cracks down on crimes ranging from shoplifting to child abuse.

Approximately 130 special agents are tasked with enforcing Virginia’s alcohol laws, but they are also given the legal authority to address any crime in the commonwealth. Since the violent arrest of a black University of Virginia student celebrating St. Patrick’s Day this month, lawmakers and school officials are questioning the department’s law enforcement power and judgment.

The ABC agents made 397 arrests in 2014 related to the illegal purchase of alcohol, of which 343 were for unauthorized purchase by people younger than 21. The remaining 54 were for the use of fake IDs or for adults buying alcohol for underage people. Agents made 377 arrests for alcohol sales to underage drinkers.


About 20 percent of the arrests ABC agents made in 2014 involved charges that have no direct connection to alcohol.

Ninety-one arrests targeted drugs, more than half of which were possession of marijuana. An additional 50 involved theft, including four for shoplifting. The agency made two arrests for child abuse or neglect.

“They’re not looking for these things, but they discover them” in the course of investigating alcohol violations, said Carol Mawyer, a spokeswoman for the agency.

Only six charges were logged for resisting arrest, assault on law enforcement officials or obstruction of justice, suggesting that contentious encounters with the public — like the arrest of Martese Johnson near U-Va.’s campus on March 18 — are rare.

Altogether, 1,157 people were charged with crimes after ABC agents arrested them in 2014. Because some were accused of multiple crimes, the agency catalogued a total of 1,394 charges.

In the same year, the agency issued 783 administrative char­ges to bars and restaurants for failing to comply with the state’s strict rules regarding alcohol sales.

Public drunkenness or swearing and resisting arrest without force were the two charges ultimately lodged against Johnson, 20. ABC agents were videotaped handcuffing Johnson as he lay on the ground, bloody and indignant. He required 10 stitches to his head.

Twenty-year-old University of Virginia junior Martese Johnson sustained a head wound that required 10 stitches after being arrested. (Bryan Beaubrun/The Cavalier Daily)

The ABC has declined to comment on agents’ use of force in that case until an independent Virginia State Police review is completed. Johnson’s criminal case has been delayed until after the outcome of the investigation.

In advance of the State Police report, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has ordered all ABC agents to be retrained in the use of force and in cultural diversity and interaction with young people. He also ordered that law enforcement agencies in college towns be given more oversight over local ABC agents’ activities.

But many in the state have questioned whether ABC agents should be arresting underage drinkers at all, regardless of how much sensitivity they display in the process.

“The ABC Board has no business going around arresting people. That was not the purpose of that agency,” said state Sen. J. Chapman “Chap” Petersen (D-Fairfax). “I have no idea why they’re doing it.”

The University of Virginia student council voted unanimously last week to urge the governor and state legislature to dissolve the ABC’s criminal law enforcement powers.

“A lot of students are just confused that the people who enforce alcohol laws are allowed to carry guns,” said the council’s president, Abraham Axler.

State Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) said that judging the department for enforcing underage drinking laws doesn’t make sense.

“They’re doing their job,” he said. “Their job may change; I would like their job to change. I would like them to focus more on administrative enforcement, because that’s not really being done. But to say that they should not be doing underage drinking arrests is not what the law is.”

Northern Virginia restaurants have complained to Albo that rival establishments are getting away with selling little or no food with their liquor, despite state requirements to the contrary. He hopes to try next year to refocus the agency’s mission but acknowledges that doing so without taking away its criminal enforcement powers altogether is a challenge.

“We couldn’t strip their authority to do underage drinking, because what if they see someone doing it?” he asked.

Focusing on the people selling alcohol to minors rather than the minors who are drinking is entirely within the ABC’s discretion, said U-Va. law professor Brandon L. Garrett.

“Their primary role isn’t policing,” Garrett said. “You would think that it would be a reasonable view that buyers could be left to local enforcement and ABC could focus on what it knows best.”

A 2005 study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that alcohol board agents are also sworn police officers in 35 states. Some states limit their arrest powers to the areas around liquor stores or bars; several do not allow agents to carry guns. In the District and Maryland, alcohol regulators have no arrest power.

ABC arrests account for just a small fraction of liquor law enforcement in Virginia. There were nearly 10,000 arrests of adults across the state last year for liquor law violations and an additional 32,000 for drunkenness.

According to crime statistics that colleges must report to comply with the Clery Act, police arrests for alcohol-related crimes have remained steady in recent years.

At Virginia Tech, police made 145 arrests for liquor law violations in 2013, and they referred 525 cases involving alcohol to the school for disciplinary action. At James Madison University, police made 57 liquor law arrests in 2013 and sent 527 alcohol-related cases to the school for disciplinary action.

That same year, U-Va. police made 23 arrests for liquor law violations and referred 498 cases to the administration for discipline proceedings.

Under Clery Act definitions, liquor law violations include the sale and possession of alcohol by underage people. Drunkenness and drinking and driving violations are not included.