Within two minutes, charges for public drunkenness and obstruction of justice against UVA student Martese Johnson were dropped Friday morning, and supporters in the courtroom burst into applause—followed by an order from the judge for quiet in the courtroom.
Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman told Judge Robert Downer that following the Virginia State Police criminal investigation, “We believe the interests of justice are best served” by not pursuing litigation, and Downer had no objection to an order of nolle prosequi, which terminates the pending prosecution.
Three Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control agents arrested Johnson early March 18 after he was turned away from Trinity Irish Pub with his own ID, from which he’d given the wrong zip code when asked at the door. The agents slammed him to the sidewalk and photos of Johnson’s bloody face went viral, sparking outrage and protests on Grounds. Chapman had asked state police for a criminal investigation into the arrest as well, and in a June 11 statement, said he would not pursue charges against the officers.
Chapman also said he would make a presentation about the evidence and the conclusions he drew on Wednesday, June 17.
“Wednesday is actually my 21st birthday,” said Johnson outside the courtroom. “I plan to be there.”
Johnson said he was “ecstatic” to have the charges dropped and it was a tremendous opportunity to have a second chance. “But I think in many instances minorities are not allowed this privilege,” he said. “It shouldn’t just be the honor student who goes to University of Virginia, who has some great academic record, and has the opportunity to have his charges dropped for something that happened so unjustly.”
He said, “I think race was definitely a factor. I don’t think it was the only factor,” and he listed poor training and the over militarization of police forces. “I’ve always been passionate about social justice and the plight of minority communities throughout our country, but I think this took it to another level.”
When asked about the agents not being charged, Johnson said, “I think that part of what happened to me can’t be blamed on the officers, and [can] be blamed on society as a whole.” He declined to comment about civil litigation.
Chapman’s decision to not prosecute marks the second time in two years he’s not gone forward in high-profile arrests of UVA students by ABC agents. In 2013, agents in an underage-drinking sting swarmed Elizabeth Daly’s car in a darkened Harris Teeter parking lot after mistaking a case of sparkling water for beer. One agent tried to smash her window and another pulled a gun as a terrified Daly fled. She was charged with three felonies, and the state paid out $212,500 to settle her lawsuit.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with the locality,” said legal expert David Heilberg. “It seems to involve overreaching by these agents based on what we know. Even if they had probable cause, the force was excessive,” he said about Johnson’s arrest. “I’ve never seen anyone treated that way.”
The three agents who arrested Johnson—Jared Miller, John Cielakie and Thomas Custer—remain on restricted administrative duty, according to an ABC release, which said the agency “respects” Chapman’s decision. It also said the ABC has not seen the state police criminal investigation. That, as well as an administrative review, will be used to determine any further course of action.
Chapman’s presentation will be held at 1pm June 17 in City Council chambers.