As more information is unfolding in the case of the arrest of University of Virginia student, Martese Johnson, it is looking more like a case of a false or wrongful arrest coupled with race bias and possible excessive force by Alcohol Beverage Control police. When the arrest video was released, few details were known. Police charged Johnson with public intoxication and obstruction of justice (without use of force). Johnson was refused entry into a pub due to under age. New information has surfaced that he did not present a fake ID. Johnson, 20 years old, was too young to enter, according to the policy of the pub and entry was refused. When the ABC police confronted him, they chose to ask questions which he allegedly answered correctly on his name, address and zip code. But somehow that led to the ABC police to arrest him and in the process and bash his head causing the need for 10 stitches.
The ABC police have been mostly silent and an investigation is under way. Trinity Irish Pub released a statement in support of Johnson. What is most troubling is whether ABC police had probable cause to detain Johnson and ultimately arrest him for public intoxication. If the police did not have probable cause to believe that Martese Johnson was publicly intoxicated, then they had no reason to arrest and charge him. There have been no facts to surface that Johnson was acting or appeared intoxicated which is an element of proving public intoxication. The police did not administer any field sobriety tests. And no one has said that Johnson’s appearance, demeanor or actions indicated he was intoxicated. Trinity Bar co-owner, Kevin Badke, where Johnson tried to enter, says that Martese Johnson was cordial and polite. Johnson was not prohibited from entering the Pub/restaurant by law. The Pub had its own policy of no one under 21 after 10 PM. Trinity Irish Pub issued a statement in support of Johnson. Within moments after leaving the Pub, Badke heard and saw Johnson on the ground with police. Further support that Johnson was sober lies with the breathalyzer test administered upon his arrest at the police station. University of Virginia Vice President of Diversity Marcus Martin stated to CNN that the tests shows that Johnson was well under the legal limit of intoxication. If there is nothing to indicate that the police reasonably had reason to believe Johnson was inebriated, then their arrest amounts to a false arrest. And a false arrest could subject the ABC police and its department to a civil suit for damages by Martese Johnson. In a prior case, the ABC Control Board settled the case of Elizabeth Daly in 2014 for her wrongful arrest by ABC officers who mistakenly arrested her for underage possession of beer which was bottled water.
The force exhibited by the ABC police presents other issues. Nothing so far indicates that Johnson needed to be beaten, bruised and brutally assaulted requiring stitches to his head. As President Teresa Sullivan stated, an arrest should not mean bruises and brutal force used. In recent months, we have seen force used against many black victims resulting in death with no criminal charges for excessive force. However, a civil suit for money damages may be brought where unnecessary and excessive force is used in an arrest. And if a case of false arrest is later established, the use of any force was unnecessary in the unlawful arrest. Johnson’s lawyers will likely review these options.
Looking at the totality of Martese Johnson’s circumstances coupled with the many hundreds of white students publicly celebrating and out drinking on March 18 without incident, it is difficult to see how race was not an issue. Martese Johnson screams at the time of his arrest, “how could this happen?” Unfortunately racial bias on the part of police happens to too many African Americans by police on a regular basis. And on March 18, Martese Johnson was one more victim of racial bias on the part of the police.
In a Fox 5 News interview on Saturday, March 21, I give further analysis on the subject.
Martese Johnson will appear in court on March 26 on the charges.
Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former prosecutor.