Liquor agents who arrested black UVA student 'did nothing wrong'

The agents who arrested Martese Johnson in March have returned to active duty following investigations by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Department and the Virginia State Police. 

Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress/AP
Martese Johnson speaks with reporters outside the Charlottesville General District Court after a hearing on Thursday in Charlottesville, Va. A September trial date has been set for Johnson, whose bloody arrest outside a bar sparked a public uproar. His arrest in March gained widespread attention when photos and videos on social media showed the 20-year-old from Chicago's face bloodied and him pinned on the ground by a state Alcohol Beverage Control Department agent.

Three Virginia liquor agents involved in a bloody arrest that led to protesters calling the encounter racist, followed procedures and did nothing wrong, the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Department said Monday.

University of Virginia student Martese Johnson's arrest sparked outrage after photos and video of the 20-year-old surfaced on social media of Mr. Johnson pinned to the sidewalk by an officer and bleeding from the head. Johnson, who is black, could be heard on the recordings calling the officers racist.

"After thoroughly reviewing the incident and the report, Virginia ABC concluded that the agents did not violate agency policy and returned these special agents to active duty today," the ABC said in a news release.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) ordered Virginia State Police to investigate, which concluded about two weeks ago. 

Governor McAuliffe also called for the retraining of the agency's approximately 130 law enforcement officers. The ABC said that training – which included hands-on and classroom instruction on use of force, cultural diversity, effective interaction with youth, and community policing – was completed in July.

The governor also appointed a panel to examine ABC's law enforcement practices and make recommendations by Nov. 1.

The arresting agents had been on desk duty since March, following the incident that occurred outside a pub across the street from the UVA campus. Almost two months ago, a Charlottesville prosecutor said a separate criminal investigation found no evidence of malice or racism by the officers, who were not charged.

"Because Virginia law prohibits disclosure of personnel files, the administrative review will not be released, and Virginia ABC cannot comment on specifics of the matter," the department said.

State police have also refused to release the report.

Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman dropped misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest and public intoxication against Johnson in June.

According to Mr. Chapman, the pub owner told investigators that he turned Johnson away after he failed to correctly recite the ZIP code on his ID. Witness accounts of what happened next varied. Johnson and some witnesses said he was "slammed" to the ground by the officers, and photos taken after the arrest show Johnson with a bloody face. Other witnesses said the officers and Johnson appeared to fall accidentally, an account that lines up with what the ABC agents reported.

The incident with Johnson occurred two years after another UVA student was arrested by ABC agents outside a supermarket when a case of water she bought was mistaken for alcohol. Undercover agents surrounded Elizabeth Daly's vehicle, one pulling a gun and another trying to break her windshield with a flashlight. Ms. Daly was not aware the men were law enforcement, and called 911 to report the incident. The public backlash was fierce, and Daly ultimately settled a lawsuit for $212,500.

At the time of Johnson's arrest in March, The Christian Science Monitor reported on the role of alcohol agents on college campuses:

Alcohol enforcement, or lack thereof, can have a significant impact on college students. Each year about 1,700 college students die from alcohol poisoning or injuries, 700,000 are assaulted by classmates who were drinking, and nearly 100,000 are victims of alcohol-related rape or other sexual assault, according to a 2007 report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

Campus binge drinking rates were found to be 31 percent lower in states with four or more laws targeting high-volume sales of alcohol, according to a 2005 Harvard study.

Martese’s attorney, Daniel Watkins of Williams Mullen, issued a statement when charges were dropped against Johnson, “This has been quite the ordeal for Martese, and we are happy that he no longer faces the threat of criminal prosecution.” Mr. Watkins declined to say whether Johnson will file a lawsuit.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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