Police brutality accusers acquitted
After two months of legal wrangling and two trials today that took a combined five hours (and even delayed a capital murder hearing), the two young adults who alleged that a police officer nearly ran over them in a crosswalk were found not guilty of the misdemeanors of which the allegedly overreacting officer had accused them.
Richard Silva was found not guilty of being drunk in public, and his fiancÃ©e, Blair Austin [seen in the photo at left with her attorney David Heilberg], was found not guilty of obstruction of justice in Charlottesville General District Court. The charges stemmed from an incident at the corner of Second Street SE and Water Street on the night of September 28 in which Charlottesville police officer Mike Flaherty, while responding to another call, came upon the couple crossing the street.
Silva, Austin, and several witnesses testified that Flaherty nearly collided with the couple, and in making his decision on Silva's case, Judge Bob Downer said he wasn't able to conclude that Silva was drunk because "there's no question that Mr. Silva was startled, as anybody would be."
As for Austin, whom Flaherty acknowledged he "shoved" while arresting Silva, Judge Downer ruled that while "her judgment was poor" in hanging onto her fiancÃ© while Flaherty handcuffed him, he wasn't confident that "she had the intent to obstruct what the officer was doing."
"I'm happy about the outcome," says Silva, "but what saddens me is that if this were an individual who couldn't afford an attorney, he would have accepted a guilty plea. Thank God I've got a good paying job, and thank God for the witnesses."
Flaherty's actions seemed to be as much at issue as the couple's. While nobody quite agreed on how fast Flaherty was driving down Second Street (witness estimates ranged from 15 to 50 miles per hour) all agreed that the vehicle's bumper came dangerously close to Silva as he and Austin attempted to cross Water Street. Even prosecution witness Gordon Butler, a cab driver who was waiting for a fare near the back of the nearby CVS pharmacy, acknowledged that Silva acted "like he was scared or he was going to get hit."
Friends of the couple testified that Silva consumed just two to three drinks during and after his Downtown Mall birthday dinner that evening.
From the time Flaherty stopped his Jeep to the time he arrested Silva (which he says took about a minute), the officer says he observed Silva "bobbing and weaving," that he had "bloodshot, glassy eyes," that his speech was "slightly slurred," and that Silva had "puffed up his chest." The only signs of intoxication observed by other witnesses was Butler's assertion that Silva was "laughing, joking around, and being belligerent."
Despite several other witnesses who painted a vastly different picture, including multiple testimonies that Flaherty arrested Silva immediately upon exiting his police vehicle, Downer agreed that Flaherty had probable cause for an arrest, but that he wasn't "satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt" that Silva was drunk.
Prior to closing arguments, Austin's own public drunkenness charge was dismissed due to a lack of evidence, leaving only the obstruction charge. Flaherty asserted that he could hear Austin before seeing her.
"Her heels were clicking," the officer testified, "as she came up behind me."
Neither Flaherty nor any other witness testified to Austin ever touching the arresting officer. Instead, Flaherty said he had had one of the Silva's hands cuffed when he observed Austin grab her fiancÃ©'s arm. At this point, in accordance with his police training, Flaherty said he extended his open palm and "pushed her on the upper arm," and Austin fell to the ground.
Others saw the push differently.
"He put both hands on my chest, and I fell on my back," said Austin.
"He struck her," said 225-pound defense witness Chris Ryan. "I'm not a small guy, but if I'd been flat-footed, he would have knocked me down."
Shortly before the case began this morning, another drunk in public case was dispatched with a not-guilty verdict after less than five minutes of testimony. Asked after the five-hour Silva-Austin trials if she felt concerned about the level of City resources mustered for these misdemeanor cases, including the subpoena of a reporter, prosecutor Katherine Peters said, "We don't pick and choose our cases."
"Here, the police and the Commonwealth got all defensive because of all the publicity," said defense attorney Heilberg. "How do you back down from that?"
Downer, perhaps anticipating that Austin might bring a civil suit against Flaherty, noted in his ruling that he did not find fault with the way in which Flaherty got physical. "Officer Flaherty was entirely justified in reacting immediately to prevent any interference," he said.
Austin said she's not sure whether she'll sue Flaherty, but that "an apology would be nice."
Silva says the couple plans on going out to dinner to celebrate but that, "I'm going to make sure everybody counts how many drinks I have."