John Whitehead's Commentary
College Girls, Bottled Water and the Emerging American Police State
What do college girls and bottled water have to do with the emerging American police state? Quite a bit, it seems.
Public outcry has gone viral over an incident in which a college student was targeted and terrorized by Alcohol Beverage Control agents (ABC) after she purchased sparkling water at a grocery store. The girl and her friends were eventually jailed for daring to evade their accosters, who failed to identify themselves or approach the young women in a non-threatening manner.
What makes this particular incident significant (other than the fact that it took place in my hometown of Charlottesville, Va.) is the degree to which it embodies all that is wrong with law enforcement today, both as it relates to the citizenry and the ongoing undermining of our rule of law. To put it bluntly, due in large part to the militarization of the police and the equipping of a wide range of government agencies with weaponry, we are moving into a culture in which law enforcement officials have developed a sense of entitlement that is at odds with the spirit of our Constitution—in particular, the Fourth Amendment.
The incident took place late in the evening of April 11, 2013. Several University of Virginia college students, including 20-year-old Elizabeth Daly, were leaving the Harris Teeter grocery store parking lot after having purchased a variety of foodstuffs for an Alzheimer’s Association sorority charity benefit that evening, including sparkling water, ice cream and cookie dough, when they noticed a man staring at them as they walked to their car in the back of the parking lot.
According to a local newspaper account:
Daly said she and her friends were “terrified” when a man and woman in street clothes began knocking on her car windows in the darkened Harris Teeter parking lot… When Daly slipped her keys into the ignition to crack the windows, a male agent yanked at the door handle, banged on the window and yelled at the women to exit the vehicle… When he began to yell, other men positioned themselves around the car and the woman yelled at Daly to “go, go go,” court records state. One drew a gun. Another jumped onto the hood of the car as Daly and her friends dialed 911 to report the incident, according to the records. The women apologized repeatedly minutes later when they stopped for a car with lights and sirens on, prosecutors said. Daly’s passenger said she was handcuffed without explanation and did not get one until a Charlottesville police officer arrived.
“They were showing unidentifiable badges after they approached us, but we became frightened, as they were not in anything close to a uniform,” stated Daly. “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.”
It wasn’t until police arrived with flashing sirens and lights that Elizabeth finally learned the identity of her attackers – they were ABC agents. Likewise, it wasn’t until the arrival of the police that the ABC agents were able to delve into the contents of the girls’ groceries, revealing their suspected contraband to be cans of LaCroix sparkling water.
Despite the fact that Daly and her friends did exactly what any young woman should do when confronted by threatening individuals in a dark parking lot, they were handcuffed and forced to spend the night in jail, with Daly being charged with three felonies—two counts of assaulting a law enforcement officer and one count of eluding police—carrying a potential of fifteen years in jail.
In justifying the agents’ actions, ABC officials point to a protocol that relies on agents having “reasonable suspicion and/or probable cause to approach individual(s) they believe have violated the law.”
Either ABC officials are being deliberately disingenuous or they don’t understand that there is a distinct difference between reasonable suspicion and probable cause, the latter of which is required by the Constitution before any government official can search an individual or his property. Then again, this distinction is often overlooked by many law enforcement officials.
In the context of police encounters with citizens in public places, probable cause is required in order for police to conduct surveillance or search an American citizen. The standard of probable cause requires that government agents and/or police have reliable evidence making it probable, i.e., more likely than not, that a crime has been committed by the person to be searched.
Reasonable suspicion, in contrast, requires less in terms of evidence and allows an officer to rely upon his experience and instincts, which, as we have seen, can often be wrong. Yet even at the lowest “reasonable suspicion” standard, an officer must have specific articulable facts supporting his belief that criminal activity is being engaged in – mere hunches or “good faith on the part of the arresting officer” is never sufficient.
While this particular incident did not end in senseless violence, it very easily could have if Daly had confronted her pursuers with any of the legally available non-lethal weapons young women are encouraged to carry today as a defensive measure.
Indeed, as incidents across the nation make clear, law enforcement officials are increasingly responding to challenges to their “authority” by using their weapons. For example, in Long Beach, California, police responded with heavy firepower to a perceived threat by a man holding a water hose. The 35-year-old man had reportedly been watering his neighbor’s lawn when police, interpreting his “grip” on the water hose to be consistent with that of someone discharging a firearm, opened fire. The father of two was pronounced dead at the scene.
These are not isolated overreactions on the part of rogue officers. As I document in my new book, A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, they are emblematic of a growing tension over the use of militarized police to perform relatively routine tasks, resulting in situations fraught with danger to both civilians and police alike. From full tactical SWAT teams executing no-knock search warrants on the homes of law-abiding citizens over nothing more than a suspicion that the occupant owns a gun to the unlawful arrest and forced institutionalization of decorated military veterans over Facebook posts critical of the government, the events described above are becoming all too familiar in cities and towns across the country.
Moreover, in light of shooting incidents across the country involving unarmed citizens and heavily armed police, increasing numbers of Americans are understandably concerned about whatever factors, whether it’s an arsenal of militarized weapons and an increasing reliance on lethal weapons or insufficient training in nonviolent conflict resolution, are contributing to a seemingly “trigger happy” tendency on the part of some law enforcement officials.
This begs the question, what constitutes a threat to an officer or resisting arrest?
Among the charges levied at Daly were that she allegedly assaulted an officer and attempted to elude police, never mind that the “assault” constituted her car brushing against plainclothes, unidentifiable officers who had been banging on the windows and climbing on her car. It is particularly telling that ABC officials believe “[t]his whole unfortunate incident [involving Daly] could have been avoided had the occupants complied with law enforcement requests.”
The key word here is comply meaning to obey, submit or conform. Increasingly, law enforcement officials operate under the assumption that their word is law and that there is no room for any form of disagreement or even question. Anything short of compliance is now perceived as resistance and a potential threat.
For example, Miami-Dade police slammed a 14-year-old boy to the ground, putting him in a chokehold and handcuffing him after he allegedly gave them “dehumanizing stares” and walked away from them, which the officers found unacceptable. According to Miami-Dade Police Detective Alvaro Zabaleta, “His body language was that he was stiffening up and pulling away… When you have somebody resistant to them and pulling away and somebody clenching their fists and flailing their arms, that’s a threat. Of course we have to neutralize the threat.”
This mindset that any challenge to police authority is a threat that needs to be “neutralized” is a dangerous one that is part of a greater nationwide trend that sets law enforcement officers beyond the reach of the Fourth Amendment. It also serves to chill the First Amendment’s assurances of free speech, free assembly and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
It’s bad enough that the police now look like the military—with their foreboding uniforms and phalanx of lethal weapons—but they function like them, as well. No longer do they act as peace officers guarding against violent criminals. And no more do we have a civilian police force entrusted with serving and protecting the American people and keeping the peace.
What we are dealing with is a militarized government entity that has clearly lost sight of its overarching duty: to abide by the dictates of the U.S. Constitution and act as public servants in service to the taxpayers of this country rather than commanders directing underlings who must obey without question.