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Thursday, July 18, 2013
The recent case of Charlottesville student Elizabeth Daly should concern us all. But I’m confident her experience does not reveal problems beyond repair, and sensible law enforcement will remain the rule.
The story goes like this. Daly, a 20-year-old University of Virginia student, went to the Barracks Road Harris Teeter last April to purchase some groceries for a sorority function. Carrying a case of beverages out of the store, she and her friends were spotted by some undercover agents of the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control office. These officers apparently concluded that the girls were underage and buying beer — in fact, they had bought sparkling water. The six officers, in plain clothes, surrounded Daly’s car and demanded she get out but failed to identify themselves clearly. Daly recounted later that they seemed to flash some sort of badge, but she was not sure if they were legitimate.
Daly and her classmates, understandably frightened, refused to comply. From their point of view, a group of unknown men suddenly surrounded the car and demanded they get out — hardly anything you’d advise your daughters to do. Daly started, she said, to crack her window, but that required starting the engine, and the men yelling through her window told her to stop. When she began to back out, one agent drew his gun and another tried to smash the window with a flashlight. She pulled out, grazing two of the officers but not injuring them.
Another student in the car called 911 while Daly headed to the Charlottesville police station. Transcripts of the 911 call seem to corroborate Daly’s version of the story. As the situation was explained, Daly pulled over for a police car in pursuit. Although few of us could blame the girls for extricating themselves from what they assumed to be a hostile situation, Daly was arrested and charged with three felonies. Those charges were dropped in June.
Now, it’s appropriate to ask: Who acted inappropriately? Daly and her car mates had bought only sparkling water. Had they actually purchased beer illegally, they may have recognized the raid for what it was. But they had no reason to assume they were under suspicion and have consistently claimed to have not known the men surrounding the car were law enforcement. I have two daughters Daly’s age. If they were in such a situation, I’d also tell them to leave and go to a police station.
The agents, on the other hand, failed to adequately identify themselves. And as taxpayers, might we ask if it is cost-effective to pay six officers to patrol a single parking lot at night hoping to bag a college student with beer? If they suspected the grocery store was selling to minors, why not be inside watching the check-outs?
We all can agree, for the most part, on several points. We don’t want minors buying alcohol. We want law enforcement to, well, enforce the law. All citizens should give proper deference and respect to the men and women who carry badges and put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf.
At the same time, the police owe us some respect as well. They are agents of the government, and we live in a political system designed to limit government. They have to be firm, and on occasion even scary. But, especially when dealing with frightened young women, they need to (and in almost all cases do) handle matters sensitively.
The blogosphere is alight with outrage over Daly’s experience. Some have cited the episode as evidence of encroaching police tyranny, but I’m more sanguine. Some officers mishandled a situation, but I’m confident this is a solvable problem and need not be repeated.
To their credit, Virginia’s ABC officials have recently announced reforms requiring a recognizably uniformed agent serve as the contact person in operations like the one that landed Daly in jail. Undercover officers will be involved in surveillance, but not in approaching suspects alone.
Developing some clear, workable standards for deciding suspicion in cases like Daly’s would also be in order. By what standard was she approached, obviously in error? Daly is 20, after all, mere months from being legal age to buy the beer she didn’t even buy. So how did the officers from across a dark parking lot jump to the conclusion that she was buying beer and was not old enough to do so?
What happened in that parking lot last April exposed some problems, but not problems that need to continue. Kudos to ABC for beginning to work on solutions.
Long is a Roanoke Times columnist and director of the Salem Museum.
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