ABC records: released—for the wrong reason?

Photos and videos of Martese Johnson's bloody arrest went viral. Photo: Bryan Beaubrun Photos and videos of Martese Johnson’s bloody arrest went viral. Photo: Bryan Beaubrun

In a change of heart, Governor Terry McAuliffe released the Virginia State Police investigation report of Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control agents’ March 18 arrest of UVA student Martese Johnson, the bloody image of which went viral. When he initially declined to make the report public, McAuliffe claimed the Freedom of Information Act prohibited release of personnel records.

Not so, says Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. Rhyne says government officials have a tendency to take exemptions to FOIA that are discretionary and say they can’t divulge records. “There’s nothing in the law that says it can’t be released,” she says.

Another problem? The reason the ABC cited for letting the public know the details of the investigation was that the three agents involved gave permission. “It’s not a condition for release,” says Rhyne. And if state police had found the agents guilty of wrongdoing, would the ABC still insist it needs its employees’ permission?

“I do think it’s a dangerous precedent to state that,” says Rhyne.

The 119-page document revealed little that had not already been made public in June when Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman detailed why he would not be prosecuting Johnson or the agents, although this is the first time the ABC has named special agents Jared Miller, Thomas Custer and John Cielake.

Virginia State Police Captain Gary Payne says in the report more than 50 people were interviewed about the incident that required Johnson to get 10 stitches. Many of the witness accounts were contradictory.

The ABC agents had targeted a handful of Irish establishments for St. Patrick’s Day, including Trinity Irish Pub, which has had eight written warnings in the past five years, and ABC Special Agent in Charge Joseph Cannon describes its license history as “bad” in the report.

Witnesses gave varying accounts of what Johnson had to drink that evening, including one who said Johnson had a nearly empty bottle of Jack Daniels. Johnson told C-VILLE in August, “I was not drunk that night.”

He’s still weighing whether to sue, according to his attorney, UVA law grad Daniel Watkins with Williams Mullen. Watkins applauded the release of the investigation. “Now, more than ever, transparency is important when reviewing the propriety of any police-citizen encounter,” he says in a statement. And, says Watkins, the broader question still stands: “[H]ow much force should police be permitted to use when investigating regulatory offenses?

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