CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. ― A prosecutor said Wednesday that he found no evidence of excessive force or racism by officers involved in the arrest of a University of Virginia student who was bloodied and pinned to the ground in an incident that drew widespread attention.
Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman said Wednesday that he would not have hesitated to charge any of the three state Alcoholic Beverage Control agents involved in detaining Martese Johnson had he believed the incident was malicious or racially motivated. Johnson, who is Black, could be heard on video recordings that circulated widely on social media calling the officers “(expletive) racists.”
“That is powerful language directed at them and they don’t respond to it,” Chapman said of the three ABC agents. “They are staying on point ― ‘stop resisting’ and things to that effect.”
He said the officers could have used much stronger measures to counter “very significant physical resistance” by Johnson, but they linked two handcuffs together rather than twist his arm more forcefully and perhaps risk an injury other than the head gash he sustained when his head struck the sidewalk.
On the other hand, Chapman said he could understand why Johnson reacted as he did when officers grabbed his arm to question him about why he was turned away from a bar after showing his ID.
“My feeling is this gentleman is not doing anything wrong and he ends up on the ground with his head banged,” the prosecutor said.
Chapman, who dropped two misdemeanor charges against Johnson last week, said “it would have been poor use of my authority and discretion” to prosecute the Chicago student.
During a more than 2½-hour press conference and community forum, Chapman outlined in detail the evidence from a Virginia State Police criminal investigation into Johnson’s arrest. He said state police interviewed 52 people, including 15 who witnessed the arrest.
“Our position is and always has been that police lacked justification to seize Mr. Johnson,” the student’s attorney, Daniel Watkins, said in a written statement after the meeting.
But Chapman said the officers had “reasonable suspicion” to question Johnson after the bar’s owner was seen taking his ID, looking at it and then holding it toward the door as if ordering Johnson to leave. Johnson was 20 at the time, below Virginia’s legal drinking age of 21. Wednesday was his 21st birthday.
The bar owner told investigators that he turned away Johnson after he failed to correctly recite the ZIP code on the ID.
Witness accounts of what happened next varied. Johnson and some witnesses said he was “slammed” to the ground by the officers. Other witnesses said the officers and Johnson appeared to fall accidentally, supporting the account by the ABC agents.
The officers said they identified themselves as police and ordered Johnson to stop resisting. Johnson said he didn’t know initially who grabbed him, and didn’t realize until late in the encounter that it was police.
Johnson was charged with public intoxication or swearing, and resisting arrest without force. Chapman said prosecutors in many Virginia localities would have pursued those charges, but he thought “it would be a bad idea.” He said neither news coverage nor public pressure influenced his decision.
The ABC agents remain on desk duty until the agency receives results of a separate administrative review by the state police. Gov. Terry McAuliffe ordered that review, as well as retraining for the agency’s approximately 130 law enforcement officers. He also appointed a panel to examine ABC’s law enforcement practices and make recommendations by Nov. 1.
The Johnson incident came two years after another U.Va. student was arrested outside a supermarket by ABC agents who mistook a carton of sparkling water for beer. Undercover agents swarmed Elizabeth Daly’s vehicle, one pulling a gun and another trying to break her windshield with a flashlight. The incident sparked a public backlash, and she settled a lawsuit for $212,500.
Watkins has declined to say whether Johnson also will file a lawsuit.