Lawyers for fourth-year UVA student Martese Johnson, whose bloody arrest splashed across national media in March, filed suit for $3 million against the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, an agency that’s no stranger to being sued by UVA students in high-profile cases.
Named in the suit along with the agency are the three agents who arrested Johnson early March 18, Jared Miller, Thomas Custer and John Cielakie, and ABC Director Shawn Walker.
The issue, says C-VILLE legal expert David Heilberg, is how sovereign immunity, which typically protects law enforcement, will be applied in the case. Johnson will have to prove “intentional misconduct or malice or grossly negligent conduct,” says Heilberg.
The complaint, filed in federal court October 20 in Charlottesville, claims Johnson’s civil rights were violated when the agents “brutally assaulted, seized, arrested and jailed Martese without probable cause and in violation of the United States Constitution” when they believed he presented a fake ID to get into Trinity’s Irish Pub on the Corner.
The driver’s license of Johnson, then 20, was valid, but when Trinity owner Kevin Badke asked for the ZIP code, Johnson gave the wrong number and was not allowed entry. ABC agents, on the lookout for underage UVA students boozing it up on St. Patrick’s Day, were on the Corner that night and Miller spotted the exchange.
Johnson claims in the suit that without identifying himself as law enforcement, Special Agent Miller grabbed his arm.
Startled from being accosted from behind by someone he did not know, according to the suit, Johnson pulled his arm away and tried to continue walking. Miller grabbed his arm again and demanded to see the alleged fake ID while “aggressively twisting [Johnson’s] arm behind his back, still not identifying himself as an officer,” says the suit, which alleges Miller escalated the encounter and used unnecessary force.
Custer then grabbed Johnson’s left arm, preventing him from producing his ID, and “all of a sudden, and without provocation, Custer and Miller slammed Martese into the brick walkway, face first, causing Martese to suffer a severe laceration to his forehead and scalp,” says the lawsuit. Johnson had 10 stitches before he was arrested, and the bloody incident left him “permanently disfigured,” according to the suit, and unable to grow hair on his scalp where there is scar tissue.
The suit notes that Johnson did not receive Miranda instructions that anything he said could be used against him, and claims that his charge of public intoxication was based on illegally obtained statements. That charge, along with obstruction of justice, were dropped in June when Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman declined to pursue charges against Johnson or the agents following a Virginia State Police investigation.
Director Walker is accused of a “systemic” failure to train ABC agents after the April 2013 incident when plainclothes agents, including Cielakie, suspected that UVA student Elizabeth Daly’s sparkling water was beer and swarmed her car in the dark Harris Teeter parking lot. A terrified Daly fled, with an agent banging on her car windows with a flashlight and another pulling a gun.
She was arrested and her charges were later dropped. Daly sued the agency for $40 million, and settled the case for $212,500.
Walker, says the suit, had knowledge of the “widespread practice of ABC officers’ use of unreasonable, disproportionate and wrongful force and tactics in approaching suspects believed to have committed minor infractions or regulatory offenses.”
And that’s the point a judge will have to decide, says Heilberg: whether the agency was performing a “proprietary” function as a business that sells alcohol or were its agents performing as law enforcement with sovereign immunity.
“It’s an uphill battle when police officers have immunity,” says Heilberg. But he also points out that Williams Mullen, the law firm representing Johnson, “is a reputable firm that would have researched sovereign immunity.” Manatt, Phelps & Phillips out of D.C. is also representing Johnson.
Heilberg says in the Daly case, there was some indication the ABC agents were “grossly negligent.”
He also says that what a plaintiff sues for is irrelevant, that it’s the damages that count. Daly, while traumatized, was not physically injured. “Martese had physical injuries,” says Heilberg.
And if Johnson was drinking that night while underage, a crime in Virginia, “That’s a defense consideration,” says Heilberg.
The Virginia ABC declined to comment, and has three weeks to respond to the complaint.