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
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
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.
While this particular incident did not end in
senseless violence, it very easily could have if Daly had confronted her
pursuers with any of the legally available non-lethal weapons young women are
encouraged to carry today as a defensive measure.
Indeed, as incidents across the nation make
clear, law-enforcement officials are increasingly responding to challenges to
their "authority" by using their weapons. For example, in Long Beach,
California, police responded with heavy firepower to a perceived threat by a
man holding a water hose. The 35-year-old man had reportedly been watering his
neighbor's lawn when police, interpreting his "grip" on the water hose to be
consistent with that of someone discharging a firearm, opened fire. The father
of two was pronounced dead at the scene.
These are not isolated overreactions on the part
of rogue officers. As I document in my new book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, they
are emblematic of a growing tension over the use of militarized police to
perform relatively routine tasks, resulting in situations fraught with danger
to both civilians and police alike. From full-tactical SWAT teams executing
no-knock search warrants on the homes of law-abiding citizens over nothing more
than a suspicion that the occupant owns a gun to the unlawful arrest and forced
institutionalization of decorated military veterans over Facebook posts
critical of the government, the events described above are becoming all too
familiar in cities and towns across the country.