Terror at Harris Teeter: Indignation rises over ABC underage drinking op
In a week with landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings, the news that had Charlottesville buzzing as outrage mounts? Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control agents' arrest of a young woman who'd gone to Harris Teeter to buy ice cream and cookie dough for a charity event and who was charged with three felony counts– even after she profusely apologized for not recognizing the agents as cops in the darkened parking lot.
In the story first reported by the Daily Progress, UVA student Elizabeth Daly, 20, and her two roommates were walking to her SUV in the Barracks Road Shopping Center around 10pm April 11 when seven plainclothes agents spied a suspicious blue carton of LaCroix sparkling water that they thought could be beer.
The agents didn't reach the young women until they were already in the car. "Agents Brown and L. Blanks attempted to confront three youthful-appearing females in which one appeared to be carrying a suitcase of beer," says the cryptic criminal complaint.
Agent Brown went to the passenger side, displayed his badge, and said he was police, while Agent L. Blanks, who is female, went to the driver's side, according to the complaint
To Daly, the badges were unidentifiable and the undercover agents didn't look like cops, she says in a statement. "[W]e became frightened." The young woman couldn't roll down her window without starting her car, she says, and when she did, the officers started yelling at her and trying to break the car windows.
"My roommates and I were terrified," says Daly. "We called 911 as we have been taught to do if you were ever unsure of the validity of people saying they are law enforcement." She began to pull away. "One of the men drew a gun in plain view of all three of us," she says. "Our panic heightened."
According to the criminal complaint lodged by Special Agent A.T. Covey, he went to the front of the SUV and was on its hood "when the driver sped away to evade police," and agents Covey and Brown were "lightly struck" multiple times.
After the story broke June 28, the Virginia ABC's initial statement skirted the gun-pulling allegation. Following a weekend in which the incident made national news, an ABC spokesperson released this July 1:
"After an agent was struck by the subject’s car and bounced up on the hood on her vehicle, another agent unholstered his weapon. He did not lift the weapon from his side. He was hit by the vehicle as well."
The Virginia ABC has not confirmed the number of agents involved in the underage undercover drinking operation on a Thursday night at Harris Teeter. Nor has it released their identities, some of which are found in court documents.
Agent Andrew Taylor stopped Daly at the intersection of Emmet and Alderman, according to the criminal complaint, and Covey notes that "the accused" said she did see the agents' badges and heard them saying "police" and "stop." Then she was charged with two counts of assaulting an officer and one count of eluding— all Class 6 felonies that carry a maximum of five years in prison and up to a $2,500 fine.
Daly says in her statement that she had planned to drive to the police station. She learned the officers were "legitimate" from 911, and she stopped at the light just outside the parking lot, where an unmarked car pulled up. In the Progress account, Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman says Daly's account was "factually consistent." Chapman had not returned a phone call from the Hook at press time.
In his motion to dismiss the charges, Chapman writes that two of the officers could see that the driver and passenger were panicking, in particular, the front seat passenger, who was "very upset." One agent could see the passenger call 911 and jump in the back seat, yelling, "go, go, go."
"The male agent could see she was misperceiving events in terms of who the agents were and their intentions," says the motion, which adds that the passenger was especially anxious as a result of traumatic events that had happened to a friend and that Daly was "influenced dramatically by the reaction of the passenger."
Additionally, as reported by the Progress, the women had attended a Take Back the Night rally at UVA earlier in the evening, where survivors of sexual assault shared their stories at the McIntire Amphitheatre.
After Daly realized the ABC agents were police, she apologized repeatedly, according to the motion to dismiss.
Daly "was not arrested for possessing bottled water, but for running from police and striking two of them with a vehicle," says the Virginia ABC in a statement. "The agents were acting upon reasonable suspicion and this whole unfortunate incident could have been avoided had the occupants complied with law enforcement requests."
"Arrogant" is how the Rutherford Institute's John Whitehead describes the ABC's response.
"They pull their guns on kids for beer?" he asks. "Someone's going to get shot from this whipping guns out."
Whitehead sent a letter to City Council July 1 demanding an independent investigation of this and the Rugby Road incident, referring to a May 7 SWAT raid by Homeland Security, Customs Enforcement agents, and Virginia State Police to bust a fake ID ring, a raid of which local police were unaware until right before it began.
Even if Daly had illegally purchased alcohol as a minor, Whitehead wonders, was the response by the ABC agents justified? "Is a full militarized team of non-police officers really necessary for the enforcement of underage drinking laws?" he writes.
Even the basis for the stops— accosting people who look young who appear to have alcoholic beverages— runs counter to the Fourth Amendment, says Whitehead, author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. "It's not illegal to look young," he says.
"What bothers me most," says longtime Charlottesville resident Ike Allen, "is for an observational sting in a public parking lot— a mundane and safe operation— why were they carrying weapons? I don't see the necessity for being armed to catch teenage beer drinkers."
He worries that things could have spiraled out of control and ended tragically. "They've already demonstrated poor judgment," says Allen. "They were hopped up with adrenaline pumping. What if they decided to shoot the tires out?"
Allen says that even if the young women had alcohol, which is a misdemeanor charge, they were confronted in a frightening way— and Daly had to spend the night in jail. "If I were her parents, I would be livid," he declares.
"I was always told not to trust anyone approaching you if you were not in a safe place," says another longtime Charlottesville resident and mother, Linda Mackenzie Murphy. "As a parent," she says, "I would be concerned about my son or daughter being approached by seven people in a dark parking lot."
Although the three felony charges were dropped, Daly, who says she has never consumed alcohol, still sounds in shock from having to spend the night in jail following an excursion to buy cookie dough and ice cream. "It is something to this day I can't understand or believe has come to this point," she says in her June 27 statement.
She lists the "extremely degrading night and afternoon in jail," having to appear in court, having to post bond and pay an attorney, missing school, wondering if she would be dismissed from school, and "wondering how this would damage my reputation and ability to get a job," as part of the nightmare she's lived since April 11.
"The reality of the matter is what I mentioned previously as having experienced and that is not just forgotten by today's results," she says in the statement. Her attorney, Fran Lawrence, declined further comment on behalf of his client.
"We take all citizen complaints seriously and the matter is currently under review by the ABC Bureau of Law Enforcement," assures the ABC in its statement.
But for some local citizens, the reaction to Daly's ordeal has sparked anger on the eve of Independence Day. Inside Charlottesville's Coy Barefoot sends this message on his WCHV radio show and on FaceBook: "It's simply this: NOT HERE. That's the response these ABC agents and the Commonwealth of Virginia need to hear loud and clear from our community: NOT HERE."