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UVA student assaulted by state alcohol control officers files lawsuit

Elizabeth Daly has filed a lawsuit against the Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) board.

Last year, Daly had just emerged from a grocery store near the University of Virginia when several ABC agents emerged from a darkened parking lot and swarmed her car with their guns drawn. One jumped on her car’s hood. Daly and her friends thought they were being attacked and called 911. (Bonus: Daly had just attended a rape awareness event.) The agents thought Daly had just purchased alcohol. It was sparkling water.

The Virginia ABC has since said that two of the agents violated the agency’s policy, but conveniently, it won’t say what those policies were, apparently to protect the privacy of those agents’ personnel files. Think about that for a minute. Two armed government agents violently confronted and terrified a group of young women in a grocery store parking lot. The women had done nothing wrong. And yet the public isn’t permitted to know how the ABC is handling the situation internally — in order to protect the privacy of those same two government agents. So much for transparency, or for accountability.

The ABC also says it has revised its policy for these kinds of busts. In the future, parking lot stakeouts will apparently include a uniformed officer to make “first contact” with the suspect. That’s a start. Last July, I posed some questions to the Virginia ABC and local prosecutors about this episode. Most of them have yet to be answered:

  • Even if Daly had purchased alcohol, how did the agents know Daly was underage?
  • Is jumping out on a young woman in a parking lot really the best way to check her ID?
  • Why, even after the agents discovered that Daly had purchased water, not alcohol, was she still arrested and charged with three felonies, including “assaulting a law enforcement officer,” when she was merely trying to get away from men she thought were attacking her?
  • If Daly had actually purchased alcohol, would the agents’ actions have been justified? Would her arrest and felony charges have been justified?
  • If she had driven away, would the agents have been authorized to shoot at her?
  • Would the justifiability of such a shoot hinge on whether she had purchased alcohol, and whether she was 20 or 21 when she did?
  • Why did it take weeks for prosecutors to drop the charges against Daly, and why were they dropped only after her case was noticed by the media?

There’s also the broader question of why Virginia’s alcohol regulatory agency needs armed agents in the first place. The arming of regulatory agencies is a disturbing trend, both at the state and federal level.  Sure, it’s possible to conceive of scenarios where it might be judicious for alcohol regulators to have armed officers around — perhaps while raiding an illegal moonshine still or busting up some black-market booze market. That’s when the ABC could call in the Virginia State Police or some other law enforcement agency for help. That, of course, would require convincing that agency why such force is necessary. When you have your own guns, you’re more likely to use them, including in situations where doing so isn’t appropriate. Like this one.

The Daly incident is also one of many cases in which state and local law enforcement has responded to suspected alcohol violations with absurd amounts of force. That includes sending aggressive, armed cops to perform alcohol regulatory inspections (which has also happened in Virginia), to perform inspections at gay bars and strip clubs and to raid bars that police suspect are allowing underage drinking. Let’s not also forget Sal Culosi, who was mistakenly shot and killed when Fairfax County, Virginia, decided to sent a SWAT team after him because he was wagering on football games with friends.

Daly is asking for $40 million. That, of course, is just an opening bid. For some, it may seem like a lot; as traumatic as this incident undoubtedly was, it might be difficult to imagine how Daly suffered $40 million in damages. But perhaps not. My question about whether the agents would have been authorized to shoot her wasn’t rhetorical. If she did indeed hit an agent with her car as she was trying to leave, there’s a good chance others would have fired their guns at her as she drove away. And they probably would have been cleared, under the argument that her car was a deadly weapon. See the Jonathan Ayers case.

A $40 million wake-up call may be just what Virginia policymakers need to start taking these issues seriously.