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Former Virginia Tech student loses lawsuit against police

Former Virginia Tech student loses lawsuit against police

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A court has written the latest chapter in a three-year saga involving a Chinese student thrust into the national spotlight over an assault-rifle charge while enrolled at Virginia Tech in 2018.

Yunsong Zhao, a Chinese citizen on a student visa, was jailed for months on a gun charge that was ultimately thrown out of court. But his contention that he was framed by police has not succeeded.

Last month, a Roanoke federal judge dismissed a lawsuit in which Zhao sought redress of grievances against two police officers involved his case.

The officers, James C. McClain, who was with the Virginia Tech police at the time, and Brian Wilson, who was with Blacksburg police at the time, won a dismissal of all causes of action against them on Jan. 4.

The ruling, if it stands, would resolve a legal dispute that examined the actions of police in firearms enforcement at the Blacksburg campus, where a student gunman massacred 32 people in 2007.

Zhao was 19 in January 2018 when he was arrested and charged with possession of an illegal assault rifle by a non-U.S citizen. Authorities stated in court papers that Zhao had tried to buy a large amount of ammunition.

The arrest generated jitters across campus, and national news outlets carried the story. Some people complained that Tech should have alerted the campus to a potential threat. But the university issued a statement saying that police did not believe the incident posed a threat to the community.

While in jail on the gun charge, Zhao was expelled from the university on campus code violations. He unsuccessfully sued the university for damages in federal court.

When the gun charge was tried in Montgomery County Circuit Court, a judge declared there were major problems with the prosecution’s case and ruled for Zhao before the trial even reached closing arguments or jury deliberations.

Zhao’s possession of a rifle was alleged to have been illegal on the grounds that he coupled it with a 30-round magazine when shooting at a Montgomery County range. A magazine that size would have made the gun an assault weapon prohibited for someone with his visa status.

However, the defense presented evidence to indicate that Zhao had used a 20-round magazine, which he was entitled to possess. Upon release from the custody of local authorities, Zhao was detained by federal immigration authorities. Tech’s action to terminate his status as a student had by that time triggered the loss of his visa.

In suing the police, Zhao alleged that two officers conspired to fabricate evidence against him, mislead a local magistrate to obtain search warrants and try to prosecute him for a crime which they knew he did not commit, according to the recent ruling, which was signed by U.S. District Judge Michael Urbanski.

Regarding the alleged fabrication of evidence, Zhao asserted that the only explanation for Wilson claiming that he saw Zhao with a 30-round magazine at the range was that Wilson held an “intention to mislead,” Urbanski wrote. “He believes no reasonable officer could express confidence in his observation considering the brevity of the surveillance and the distance at which Detective Wilson observed Zhao.

“While his confidence in his brief observation may have been overstated, there is absolutely no evidence that Detective Wilson reported his surveillance findings in bad faith,” Urbanski wrote.

Saying Zhao’s presentation to the court was without credible evidence, Urbanski dismissed the suit. Zhao has filed a notice of appeal through attorney Mario Williams of Atlanta. Williams did not respond to a request for comment.

Zhao could not be reached for comment.

An immigration attorney told The Roanoke Times in October 2018 that Zhao planned to depart the United States and return to China.

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Jeff Sturgeon covers business, banking, transportation and federal court. Phone: (540) 981-3251. Email: jeff.sturgeon@roanoke.com. Mail: 201 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011.

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