Bottled Water Purchase Earns UVa Student A Night In Jail

Earlier this week, a 20-year old college student in Virginia had a bizarre late night encounter after buying bottled water and a few other items at a grocery store:

When a half-dozen men and a woman in street clothes closed in on University of Virginia student Elizabeth Daly, 20, she and two roommates panicked.

That led to Daly spending a night and an afternoon in the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail. Her initial offense? Walking to her car with bottled water, cookie dough and ice cream just purchased from the Harris Teeter in the Barracks Road Shopping Center for a sorority benefit fundraiser.

A group of state Alcoholic Beverage Control agents clad in plainclothes approached her, suspecting the blue carton of LaCroix sparkling water to be a 12-pack of beer. Police say one of the agents jumped on the hood of her car. She says one drew a gun. Unsure of who they were, Daly tried to flee the darkened parking lot.

“They were showing unidentifiable badges after they approached us, but we became frightened, as they were not in anything close to a uniform,” she recalled Thursday in a written account of the April 11 incident.

“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,” Daly stated.

Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman read Daly’s account and said it was factually consistent.

Prosecutors say she apologized profusely when she realized who the agents were. But that wasn’t good enough for ABC agents, who charged her with three felonies. Prosecutors withdrew those charges Thursday in Charlottesville General District Court, but Daly still can’t understand why she sat in jail.

“This has been an extremely trying experience,” she wrote. “It is something to this day I cannot understand or believe has come to this point.”

Agents at ABC’s regional office in Staunton deferred to the agency’s public affairs office in Richmond. Spokeswoman Carol Mawyer would not provide details of the arrest or ABC’s investigative procedures, except to say that all agents wear plainclothes and carry metal badges.

Agents charged Daly with two counts of assaulting a law enforcement officer and one count of eluding police, all Class 6 felonies carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison and $2,500 in fines per offense.

Chapman said he’d never encountered a situation like this in his 34 years of experience.

“It wouldn’t be the right thing to do to prosecute this,” he said, noting that no one was hurt during the exchange, which took place around 10:15 p.m.

Right off the bat, one has to wonder what reasonable basis the agents had to suspect that Daly had illegally purchased alcohol. They clearly didn’t have anyone inside the store tipping them off, because if they did they would’ve known she only bought water (unless they received incorrect information). Even if they did have some kind of reasonable suspicion, though, the way they handled the situation from the beginning was clearly way over the top, treating what was supposed to be a bust of a college co-ed buying what they thought was a six-pack of beer as if it were a major drug bust. As for Daly’s reaction, the fact that the men didn’t clearly identify themselves from the beginning makes her reactions in response completely understandable. For all she knew she and her friends where being attacked.

It’s good that the prosecutor decided to drop the charges, of course, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that she spent the better part of 24 hours in jail for something she clearly didn’t do. She won’t get compensated for that, and these agents won’t get disciplined for that they did, and that’s the real tragedy of this whole situation.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, Quick Takes
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. Franklin says:

    A prosecutor who uses discretion? I know one commenter on this site who won’t like that.

  2. Tillman says:

    Eh, she deserved it.

    …what? Bottled water’s a scam.

    Even if they did have some kind of reasonable suspicion, though, the way they handled the situation from the beginning was clearly way over the top, treating what was supposed to be a bust of a college co-ed buying what they thought was a six-pack of beer as if it were a major drug bust.

    Yeah, why the hell does it take six plainclothes officers to nab one sorority sister?

  3. al-Ameda says:

    This begs the question: don’t these guys have REAL criminal activity that they could be policing?

  4. rudderpedals says:

    Lucky she wasn’t shot or tased.

  5. I’m kinda bothered by the increasing use of plainclothes police for routine law enforcement. But it seems especially crazy for a police to dress outfit specifically for the purpose of tricking people into thinking they’re not a police officer, and then want to press criminal charges when people don’t obey them because they think they’re not a police officer.

  6. CSK says:

    There’s so much wrong with this story that it’s hard to know where to begin.

    1. Is it normal procedure to have seven (7) ABC agents hanging around a grocery store at night?
    2. If they were looking for underage purchasers, couldn’t they have planted a spotter inside the store to look for suspicious activity at the cash register?
    3. Could they have put someone at the door to check the register slips of exiting customers? Costo seems to manage it.
    4. If it comes to that, couldn’t they have just asked the clerk what the young woman had bought?
    5. Was pulling a gun absolutely necessary?
    6. Does Ms. Daly have grounds for a suit?

    Really, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev got treated better when he was busted in the boat.

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Tillman:

    Yeah, why the hell does it take six plainclothes officers to nab one sorority sister?

    Hey! There were 3 of them, that’s like a pack of ravening dogs! I’m surprised they didn’t call in SWAT!

    When a half-dozen men and a woman in street clothes closed in on University of Virginia student Elizabeth Daly, 20, she and two roommates panicked.

  8. Just Me says:

    I think our police have gotten more militaristic and more power hungry.

    I mean honestly the agents did this completely wrong and not only terrified a young woman by swarming her without clear identification they got pissed that she got scared, charged her then threw her in jail for the night. Once they realized why she panicked they should have sent her on her way with apologies.

    Glad the prosecutor realized the agents were idiots.

    I don’t think the goal of cracking down on underage sales of alcohol is a bad goal but I am having a hard time believing this is the best way to do it.

  9. gustovcarl says:

    Hell, her ice cream probably melted, too!

  10. Ben Wolf says:

    @rudderpedals: It’s a good thing she was white, or she’d be dead.

  11. Franklin says:

    BTW, I’d be happy to contribute to any legal fund to sue the ABC out of existence, on her behalf.

  12. Jeff Cimoch says:

    Domestic Terrorism is alive and well. Sue, sue, sue.

  13. Zig Zag says:

    I live in a college town and sometimes these tips just sit outside the grocery store in plain clothes looking in peoples bags and if they see a student with beer they will demand an id.

  14. Gustopher says:

    She needs to sue. The only way to reign in these abuses is to hurt the controlling authorities — make me pay out enough that voters get angry the out of control cops are causing them to be taxed more.

    Also, she can no longer answer “no” when asked if she has ever been arrested. I know I’ve been asked that question crossing the border to Canada, and on job applications (something on Wall St., I was also fingerprinted for the SEC’s amusement or whatever once I got the job).

  15. Hal 10000 says:

    With the way things are going with militarization of the police, she’s lucky she didn’t get shot. Absurd over-reaction. I live in C’Ville for six years and sorority girls buying beer at Harris Teeter wasn’t anywhere close to the top of the list of things police should be prioritizing.

  16. Press Watch says:

    I bet she switched the labels in the store !

    I do it all the time

    It only takes about 25 – 30 minures

    (sarc off)

    This is “gubmint” spinning out of control –

    These are nothing but dopes with guns

  17. James in Silverdale, WA says:

    Our police state proceeds apace.

  18. Franklin says:

    @James in Silverdale, WA: I’d amend that to: “Our militarized police state proceeds apace.”

  19. Rob in CT says:

    Crazy. Absolutely crazy.

  20. Rob in CT says:

    http://www.dailyprogress.com/news/local/abc-says-it-s-reviewing-arrest-of-uva-student-who/article_1e7dd982-e057-11e2-b032-0019bb30f31a.html

    The state agency is reviewing the matter.

    Maybe they’ll do the usual “the officers acted appropriately, no disciplinary action needed” BS. We can hope otherwise.