NEWS- Revolving door? Sentencing questioned in Brown case
When law enforcement officials stormed a Briarwood townhouse on August 18 and arrested Douglas Michael Brown Jr., an introduction was hardly necessary. Long before his alleged role in the August 12 death of Colonial Heights police Lt. James Sears, "Beefy" Brown was a familiar face to area police, having served over eight years in prison for numerous– although less serious– convictions and appearing before City and County circuit courts for many other offenses.
But in spite of his rap sheet, Brown was out on probation and AWOL from his probation officer at the time he allegedly ran from Chesterfield County police at 110 miles per hour in a stolen snack van. Outraged citizens might ask, "How many chances is too many?"
On March 22, 2003 in Albemarle Circuit Court, visiting judge David Berry sentenced Brown to 16 years in prison for methadone possession, grand larceny, and assault of a law enforcement officer.
According to court testimony, the assault charge stemmed from an incident in which Brown, while in Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail awaiting trial on the larceny and methadone charges, had tried to stab a corrections officer with the axle from a restraining chair. He had dismantled the chair, and threw parts of it along with urine and feces at the officer. Considering that and other evidence, Berry sentenced Brown to 16 years, with all but three and a half years suspended. He tacked on two years' probation when Brown was released.
Brown served his time and was a free man as of May 18, 2005. But after violating his probation and being charged with using cocaine and marijuana, Brown was back in Albemarle Circuit Court on April 5, 2006– this time before presiding judge Paul "Mac" Peatross.
Known in some legal circles as "Maximum Mac," Peatross has the reputation among some court-watchers as a tough judge with a temper. In fact, in 2004, Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos and Charlottesville Albemarle Public Defender Jim Hingeley filed a joint motion with the state Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission asking that Peatross to be censured or removed because of his conduct on the bench.
Among the accusations listed in the motion was one case in which Peatross allegedly retaliated against a defense attorney by slapping the client with a harsher-than-expected sentence. Although the Virginia Supreme Court denied the Commission's recommendation that Peatross be sanctioned, the judge's hard-boiled reputation had become public knowledge.
It therefore came as a surprise to some when, in the April case, Peatross not only didn't re-impose Brown's previously suspended 12 years and six months, but also revoked the 12 years and suspended the remaining six months– essentially crediting Brown for time served. Peatross punished Brown only by enrolling him in the Boxwood Inpatient Rehabilitation Program in Culpeper.
Two days after completing the two-week rehab on June 13, Brown reported to probation officer Eric Fling, but according to Fling's August 16 report to Peatross, Brown skipped his mandatory July 11 probation meeting, and Fling discovered the address Brown had provided as his residence did not exist.
Fling reported that his voice mails and letters to both Brown and his mother went unanswered, and Brown failed to report for his mandatory July 28, August 3 and August 9 meetings.
On August 12 Brown was allegedly running from Chesterfield County police when he was involved in the accident that resulted in the death of Officer Sears.
"It's unfortunate," says Sears' colleague, Lt. William Anspach. "At some point you have to give people a chance to improve on themselves, and Mr. Brown just wasn't able to take advantage."
As is customary for open cases, Peatross did not return the Hook's calls.
City Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman says that, in spite of Brown's past, Peatross' sentence was in keeping with the judicial mainstream because Brown's drug use and absconding were not new offfenses and were relatively minor, crimes considered "technical" violations.
"The sentencing guidelines tend to recommend little or no incarceration in the case of technical violations," Chapman says, "so that is not a surprising outcome."
Del. Rob Bell (R-Orange), himself a former prosecutor, says this case is an example of what's wrong with Virginia's current probationary system.
"I think it's a mistake to minimize the punishment for technical violations," he says. "When somebody's on probation, they're expected to follow the terms of probation. When they don't, punishment should be imposed."
Bell says he plans to address the issue in the House of Delegates in the next legislative session.
Dana Schrad, Executive Director of the Virginia Chiefs of Police, calls the case another consequence of an overburdened corrections system.
"Systemically, our criminal justice system is overloaded, our corrections system is at or beyond capacity, and sometimes release decisions are made because of what resources there are in the community," she says.
Overcrowded prisons are not the only problem, Schrad says. "Our probation officers have a caseload that's over the recommended professional standard, and their salaries aren't competitive with the private sector. So they can't hire more officers to reduce the caseload," she says.
For his role in the fatal accident, Brown has been charged with murder in Colonial Heights and faces several more charges in Chesterfield County stemming from the chase. Brown's probation violation case in Albemarle Circuit Court is currently slated for the October docket. He is being held in Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail.
Douglas Michael "Beefy" Brown had failed to report to four probation meetings by the time he allegedly led Chesterfield County police on a high-speed chase on August 12. ALBEMARLE COUNTY POLICE DEPARTMENT