Repairing a troubled agency
The Rutherford Institute is right to press the ABC for a “public accounting,” but some of its criticisms fall short
The Rutherford Institute, a civil-liberties advocacy group based in Charlottesville, has championed its share of causes since current president John Whitehead founded the organization in 1982. The Institute helped Paula Jones pursue a sexual-harassment suit against then-President Bill Clinton in 1997. And in 1993, Whitehead—an uncompromising religious-freedom advocate, at least in his earlier days—considered representing David Koresh when the self-proclaimed prophet was holed up in his Branch Davidian compound outside of Waco, Texas.
Last Thursday, the Institute threw its weight behind a cause more popular than a cult leader’s religious liberty. In a letter to J. Neal Insley, the chairman of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, Whitehead called for changes to ABC officer training. He also suggested the creation of a review board to provide feedback to the public-safety agency.
The Virginia ABC is none too popular in Charlottesville after the April incident involving University student Elizabeth Daly, then a second-year College student. ABC operatives swarmed Daly’s car in a darkened grocery store parking lot after the agents mistook a case of sparkling water for beer. One of the agents drew his gun. Fearing foul play, Daly drove out of the parking lot and promptly called 911. Daly, who said she had never consumed alcohol, was charged with two felonies and spent a night in jail.
The Institute is right to press the ABC to give, in Whitehead’s words, a “public accounting.” But there are a few ways in which the Institute’s pressure threatens to become misplaced.
Whitehead has suggested a review board that would give feedback to the ABC on “necessary reform measures.” Some reform measures are probably necessary in the case of the ABC. But an event that goes wrong, such as the Daly case, does not always indicate a need for policy reform on the organization’s part. The ABC has already introduced one significant policy change in response to blowback: at least one uniformed agent is now required to be present when plainclothes agents approach people suspected of breaking the law. But it is not a given that further reforms are needed. It is smart for organizations to review their policies after an incident that causes a crisis of legitimacy. But it is not smart to demand policy changes just for the sake of change, as a show of concern or a public indicator that an organization is engaging in introspection. The Daly incident does not seem to have been first and foremost a problem of flawed policy. The officers’ undue aggression hints at a problem of implementation.
Whitehead’s treatment of the constitutional issues the Daly incident raises also does not attend to the limits of policy. In his letter, Whitehead proposes a training program for agents that would give them a thorough understanding of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibitions on unreasonable searches and seizures. In keeping with the Institute’s libertarian tendencies, Whitehead bristled at the Daly incident, branding it a marker of “police militarization,” according to a July 1 press release on the Institute’s website. (Indeed, some staunch civil-liberties advocates may protest the prohibition of underage drinking altogether, arguing that it violates personal autonomy.) But we should not assume that ABC agents swarmed Daly’s car because they were ignorant of the Fourth Amendment. As police officers responsible for upholding the law, one would assume that they would be aware of it. Further, the “reasonable suspicion” standard the ABC employs — which Whitehead argues is unconstitutional — was upheld by the Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio. ABC agents did not stop Elizabeth Daly because they were unfamiliar with the Constitution (though they probably would benefit from a brush-up). The overriding problem here is not incomprehension of the law. The problem is a lack of courtesy, at best; at worst, it is corruption by power. Constitutional training will not solve this problem. Tightened performance reviews and increased accountability standards for officers might.
The Virginia State Police is conducting a review of the Daly incident that it will share with the ABC. But the Virginia State Police will not offer recommendations to the agency. Here is where the Institute’s pressure could prove useful. Though in his letter Whitehead disparages the state police’s review as “little more than a fact-finding mission,” such a mission is important. We cannot propose informed policy changes unless we know why the agents behaved the way they did that night in April. It would be ideal for the Virginia State Police to offer recommendations for change, but if not, Whitehead’s idea of a review board could be a good bet. We suggest a further source for the ABC to consult if it reviews its policies (which it should): the University police. Skilled at dealing with college students, the University police aims to address drinking in a way that holds student safety as its highest aim. This mode of law enforcement is something the ABC could learn from.