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Commonwealth hosts public discussion addressing Johnson case

Chapman presents investigation details

The Commonwealth held a public presentation Jun. 17 addressing the highly publicized arrest of rising fourth-year College student Martese Johnson by Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control agents. Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Nina-Alice Antony led the event in the Charlottesville City Council Chambers.

The public presentation was meant to be an open discussion of the Virginia State Police investigation, an inquiry which ended with the recently announced decision by the Charlottesville Commonwealth Attorney’s office that it would neither pursue misdemeanor charges against Johnson — of obstruction of justice without force and public intoxication — nor file any criminal charges against the ABC agents involved in Johnson’s arrest.

Chapman began the presentation by stressing the impact of Johnson’s arrest on the University and Charlottesville communities and addressing the purpose of hosting such a presentation in its wake.

“Traumatic events like these can leave mental and emotional scars,” Chapman said. “Those scars can be on the individual level, or they can be on the level of the community, or they can be on a level of a part of the community that is especially interested in the events or affected by them. Part of why we’re here today is to try and prevent that from happening in the future.”

Chapman and Antony summarized the details of the Virginia State Police investigation of the incident on the Corner. The state investigation involved input from 52 individuals, 15 of whom were witnesses of all or part of the interaction between Johnson and the ABC agents.

Others, such as the medical staff at the University Medical Center who treated Johnson after the arrest, as well as staff at the regional jail where he was taken, were interviewed and included as part of the investigation.

Upon consideration of information from the 52 individuals, Chapman said his office determined there was not an appropriate basis for further legal action against Johnson. He said there were three central factors behind this decision.

“At the inception of the events that led to his contact with ABC officers outside the Trinity Irish Pub, Mr. Johnson was not in fact committing a criminal offense,” Chapman said. “As a result of this encounter with ABC officers, Mr. Johnson received a significant injury and was held in jail overnight. We came to the judgment that the long term interest of our community is best served in this instance as a stimulus for discussion, for understanding and prevention of similar acts in the future.”

Chapman said the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office reached a similar conclusion in regards to pursuing a criminal case against the officers involved.

“None of the officers committed a criminal offense,” Chapman said. “Had we thought for a moment that malice, that racial animosity or intentional or reckless disregard of the authority of a sworn law enforcement officer existed, we would not have hesitated to prosecute anyone who was so involved.”

Discussing the particulars of the results of the state investigation, Chapman said there were two main points that were considered: did the officers have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and do citizens have a right to resist arrest, especially if there has been no criminal activity.

“The officers’ report, what they could see occurring in front of them, in terms of the interaction centering around the ID — and the holding out of it toward the exit — is corroborated by the input of people who were nearby,” Chapman said. “So it is a reasonable, factual basis to take into consideration that this gentleman had been turned away and it is the business of the officers of this sort to have responsibility for enforcement of laws relating to the use of a fake or falsified ID. So they have occurring in front of them a basis in fact for identifying a specific individual to follow up by approaching him.”

Chapman said Johnson did not have the authority or right to physically resist detention by the ABC officers, according to established legal precedent. He cited the 2002 Virginia Supreme Court case Commonwealth v. Hill, in which the Virginia Supreme Court ruled against the right to resist even unlawful arrest or detention.

One member of the community asked in what way this incident could be viewed as a “teachable moment,” and what young individuals who face similar situations — in which they know they have not acted illegally, but are approached by law enforcement officers and arrested on suspicion regardless — should do.

“I think it’s very important to prepare people in advance not by reading them that case from Virginia law, but by in civics classes that you do not have a right to resist,” Chapman said in response. “Do not resist. Please do not resist.”

Chapman concluded the presentation by discussing the national context of police force and racial tension in which Johnson’s arrest has occurred. Though the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office found no evidence of racial motivation or unnecessary force in Johnson’s arrest, Chapman addressed the importance of establishing a strong, trusting relationship between citizens and law enforcement.

“People are tired and want the end of it, of seeing tragic results from things that aren’t so important,” Chapman said. “That is, in a way, one of the two most important messages. The other is: how can we have better accounting for and accountability for the use of violence that results in serious injury or death when citizens are in a confrontation with police. We need to get to a point where people have confidence in their institutions and those who run them.

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