After video of Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control agents brutally beating college student Martese Johnson went viral last week, the agency has come under heavy scrutiny.
Initial reports from arresting agent J. Miller claim Johnson, 20, was excessively intoxicated and acting belligerently. The University of Virginia student was charged with resisting arrest, obstructing justice without threats of force and profane swearing or intoxication in public.
However, since the story of the arrest has received national attention, Trinity Irish Pub, the bar where Johnson was denied entrance, released a statement refuting the claims made by the arresting officer.
According to the statement, Managing Owner Kevin Badke denied Johnson entrance after he was unable to identify crucial information attached to his identification. The two then had a cordial conversation about their connection to the Chicago area, where they are both from.
“In Mr. Badke’s opinion, Mr. Johnson did not appear to be intoxicated in the least. Despite the conversation, which was cordial and respectful, Mr. Badke reiterated that he could not permit him to enter,” the statement read. “There have been reported comments that management of Trinity were belligerent towards Mr. Johnson or that Mr. Johnson was belligerent towards management. Those allegations are patently untrue.”
The initial reports that he was trying to enter the bar with a fake ID are also false. He had been refused entry to the bar because he could not remember the zip code listed on his Illinois license, which drew suspicions but the identification was valid.
Despite the mounting evidence that Johnson is not guilty, prosecutors still refuse to dismiss the case against Johnson, who ended up hospitalized that night, his face requiring ten stitches.
In fact, earlier today, when Johnson appeared in court to enter a not guilty plea, prosecutors asked for a continuance, telling the judge they need more time to build up their case against the honors student.
Meanwhile, the incident led to Governor Terry McAuliffe to sign an executive order Wednesday, titled “Improving ABC Law Enforcement,” which requires agents to be retrained in “the areas of use of force, cultural diversity, effective interaction with youth, and community policing” and places stronger oversight on the agency that has a long history of abusing its power.
The incident has sparked such public outrage that University President Teresa Sullivan released a statement standing in solidarity with Johnson and Black Dot, a student organization that fights for racial justice on campus.
“Today, as U.Va. students, faculty, and staff who share a set of deeply held values, we stand unified in our commitment to seeking the truth about this incident,” Sullivan said. “And we stand united in our belief that equal treatment and equal justice are among our fundamental rights under the law.”
Last year during the policing of the Nelson County Lockn’ Music Festival, the Sheriff’s Department and ABC took two decidedly different approaches. The Sheriff’s Department, understood that a festival drawing crowds of close 25,000 is going to have its fair share of drug use (mostly pot smoking) and drinking. Despite this widespread consumption, the sheriff’s office was pleased with the event saying that there were “little to no problems” in a post-event press release.
Alcoholic Beverage Control reports however, claimed violations were widespread. This disagreement led to an incident where an ABC agent attempted to intimidate the festival director and bully him into stricter policy. The two entities went back and forth in the weeks following the festival with little resolution.
According to C-Ville:
The Nelson County Sheriff’s Office and the Virginia Board of Alcoholic Beverage Control took starkly different approaches to policing last year’s Lockn’ Music Festival, testimony revealed at a May 16 hearing in Richmond, which concluded the state agency’s investigation into whether the festival should lose its license to sell alcohol. While ABC agents videotaped a topless woman and documented more than 100 alleged incidents of people using drugs—mostly smoking pot—the Nelson Sheriff’s department took a more relaxed approach and saved scathing criticism for the ABC.
“We knew people were going to smoke dope, we knew they were going to drink beer,” said Captain Ron Robertson with the Nelson Sheriff’s Office. “That happens at every festival I’ve been to.”
At least one ABC agent seemed to take a more aggressive law enforcement stance, Robertson testified, describing an encounter at a festival tent in which he characterized ABC Special Agent Matthew C. Layman’s behavior as that of “a storm trooper or Gestapo agent.” Said Robertson, “I didn’t like the way he talked or acted,” but said he told Layman he’d still back him up.
Robertson wasn’t the only one whose testimony painted Layman’s festival enforcement style as over-zealous.
Lockn’ festival director Nigel James, whose 32 years in music festivals includes work with the legendary Bill Graham Presents, testified that things got off to a rocky start at a pre-festival security meeting with Agent Layman. “He walked into my personal space and started shouting that there was going to be a riot and people would be stabbed,” said James. The ABC agent said bands like Widespread Panic would bring drug users, testified James.
Then there was the 2013 incident where a group of ABC agents pounced on the car of a 20-year-old woman whom they suspected had just purchased beer, terrorizing her at gunpoint, even though she had only purchased a bottle of water. The incident resulted in Elizabeth Daly receiving a $212,000 settlement last year.
Incidents such as these and the one at UVA have led Virginia Lawmakers to take action against ABC. Legislation to remove law enforcement powers from the agency have now received renewed attention.
For the past three years, State Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath has proposed a bill that would mandate a review of the organization’s law enforcement abilities by a Commonwealth commission and each year the bill failed to pass.
“What I’ve proposed in the past … is legislation that basically would require a review commission to study the idea of putting the law enforcement authority over to the state police,” Deeds said. “It would raise professionalism and accountability, and it would also create efficiencies of scale.”
Deeds sites the Johnson incident as yet another case against ABC’s credibility and hopes that this will lead to further discussion in future legislative sessions.
“I’m disturbed and sickened, frankly, about the pictures and the video,” Deeds said. “I can’t imagine what justification there was for that sort of force. I’m really anxious to look at all the facts, and there’s an investigation.”
New legislation cannot be proposed until January 2016, hopefully continued public discourse will keep this brutal incident from fading away into the depths of forgotten news cycles.
Video of Johnson’s arrest, which has received more than 1.3 million views, is posted below.