“They came up to the car swiftly and very aggressively. I was close enough to hear and they weren’t saying anything about who they were, just yelling at the people to get out of the car.”
So says a witness to the nighttime incident in April in which plainclothes agents of the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control descended on the vehicle of 20-year-old Elizabeth Daly, a student at U.Va., in a grocery-store parking lot. Daly had just purchased some bottled water; the agents mistook it for beer. As they surrounded her vehicle, some of the agents flashed badges. But anyone can buy a badge. Daly and her passenger feared for their safety and fled – dialing 911 as they did so.
When the agents caught up with Daly, they charged her with three felonies, and she spent the night in jail. A Charlottesville prosecutor has since dropped the charges. But the episode has generated a great deal of public concern – and justifiably so.
“In a written statement provided to The Daily Progress,” the paper reported last week, “a passenger in Daly’s SUV said a man covered in tattoos and dressed in dark clothing appeared to trail the women as they walked to the vehicle. Then a man in a black Volcom T-shirt approached her side of the SUV and yelled for her to get out, eventually drawing his gun during the exchange, she said. Daly’s front-seat passenger said she was on edge after returning from an event in which sexual assault survivors recounted their attacks.“
This is disturbing enough in itself. Even more disturbing is the ABC’s initial review of the incident, which exonerated agents who were acting as if drunk on power. Fortunately, others have not been willing to let the matter go quite so easily. The department is now conducting a second review. It also has announced a change in “operational practice” requiring a uniformed officer “to act as a contact person once the plainclothes agent has developed reasonable suspicion” of a violation.
That’s a start. The results of its review also should be made public, and it should not remain confined to the particulars of the Daly case. Other questions also merit probing. For example: Is the department’s policy on the use of force too lax? If it is not, then do ABC agents generally abide by it – or are cowboy antics like those in Charlottesville common? At least half a dozen agents reportedly were on the scene of the Harris Teeter confrontation. Is that standard – and, if so, does chasing down coeds for possible underage alcohol purchases represent the best use of ABC resources? If it is, then what should agents do differently in the future in order to avoid terrorizing innocent citizens?
Binge drinking on college campuses is a serious problem, as high-profile tragedies in Virginia and across the country have testified. But lasting solutions are more likely to involve peer education, academic sanctions, and social persuasion rather than shock-and-awe tactics in grocery-store parking lots.