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.