John W. Whitehead
July 10, 2013
What do college girls and bottled water have to do with the emerging American police state? Quite a bit, it seems.
Public outcry has gone viral over an incident in which a college student was targeted and terrorized by Alcohol Beverage Control agents (ABC) after she purchased sparkling water at a grocery store. The girl and her friends were eventually jailed for daring to evade their accosters, who failed to identify themselves or approach the young women in a non-threatening manner.
What makes this particular incident significant (other than the fact that it took place in my hometown of Charlottesville, Va.) is the degree to which it embodies all that is wrong with law enforcement today, both as it relates to the citizenry and the ongoing undermining of our rule of law. To put it bluntly, due in large part to the militarization of the police and the equipping of a wide range of government agencies with weaponry, we are moving into a culture in which law enforcement officials have developed a sense of entitlement that is at odds with the spirit of our Constitution—in particular, the Fourth Amendment.
The incident took place late in the evening of April 11, 2013. Several University of Virginia college students, including 20-year-old Elizabeth Daly, were leaving the Harris Teeter grocery store parking lot after having purchased a variety of foodstuffs for an Alzheimer’s Association sorority charity benefit that evening, including sparkling water, ice cream and cookie dough, when they noticed a man staring at them as they walked to their car in the back of the parking lot.
According to a local newspaper account:
Daly said she and her friends were “terrified” when a man and woman in street clothes began knocking on her car windows in the darkened Harris Teeter parking lot… When Daly slipped her keys into the ignition to crack the windows, a male agent yanked at the door handle, banged on the window and yelled at the women to exit the vehicle… When he began to yell, other men positioned themselves around the car and the woman yelled at Daly to “go, go go,” court records state. One drew a gun. Another jumped onto the hood of the car as Daly and her friends dialed 911 to report the incident, according to the records. The women apologized repeatedly minutes later when they stopped for a car with lights and sirens on, prosecutors said. Daly’s passenger said she was handcuffed without explanation and did not get one until a Charlottesville police officer arrived.
“They were showing unidentifiable badges after they approached us, but we became frightened, as they were not in anything close to a uniform,” stated Daly. “I couldn’t put my windows down unless I started my car, and when I started my car they began yelling to not move the car, not to start the car. They began trying to break the windows. My roommates and I were … terrified.”
It wasn’t until police arrived with flashing sirens and lights that Elizabeth finally learned the identity of her attackers – they were ABC agents. Likewise, it wasn’t until the arrival of the police that the ABC agents were able to delve into the contents of the girls’ groceries, revealing their suspected contraband to be cans of LaCroix sparkling water.
Despite the fact that Daly and her friends did exactly what any young woman should do when confronted by threatening individuals in a dark parking lot, they were handcuffed and forced to spend the night in jail, with Daly being charged with three felonies—two counts of assaulting a law enforcement officer and one count of eluding police—carrying a potential of fifteen years in jail.
In justifying the agents’ actions, ABC officials point to a protocol that relies on agents having “reasonable suspicion and/or probable cause to approach individual(s) they believe have violated the law.”
Either ABC officials are being deliberately disingenuous or they don’t understand that there is a distinct difference between reasonable suspicion and probable cause, the latter of which is required by the Constitution before any government official can search an individual or his property. Then again, this distinction is often overlooked by many law enforcement officials.
In the context of police encounters with citizens in public places, probable cause is required in order for police to conduct surveillance or search an American citizen. The standard of probable cause requires that government agents and/or police have reliable evidence making it probable, i.e., more likely than not, that a crime has been committed by the person to be searched.
Reasonable suspicion, in contrast, requires less in terms of evidence and allows an officer to rely upon his experience and instincts, which, as we have seen, can often be wrong. Yet even at the lowest “reasonable suspicion” standard, an officer must have specific articulable facts supporting his belief that criminal activity is being engaged in – mere hunches or “good faith on the part of the arresting officer” is never sufficient.