Community members expressed mixed feelings about the implementation of bag searches by law enforcement Saturday as the City tightens security in the downtown area due to the possibility of potential demonstrations on the one-year anniversary weekend of the violent white supremacist Unite the Right rally.
While supporters of the measure said it was necessary as a means of ensuring safety, opponents say its an overreaction.
Officers are requiring all bags to be searched at two checkpoints to enter the of the Downtown Mall — located at Second Street and Third Street on the south side of the mall. The access points will be the only entrances for pedestrians to enter the mall area until Monday morning.
This decision follows the trend of the City imposing safety measures as the one-year anniversary of the white supremacist gatherings in Charlottesville takes place. The City, which is currently in a , has a security perimeter and a large police presence at the Downtown Mall.
At a press conference Wednesday, Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney said in response to questions from media that there would not be bag searches conducted at the pedestrian access checkpoints. At a community briefing for the anniversary weekend last month, Brackney also said bags would be not searched.
“Law enforcement personnel at the access points to the downtown security area will be enforcing the restrictions as ordered by the Charlottesville City Manager,” the release read. “All persons and bags are being consensually searched for prohibited objects and cleared for access to the security perimeter. An individual has the right to refuse the search of his/her bag. No one is being denied entry. However, unsearched bags/purses/backpacks/packages will not be allowed entry into the access area.”
The release further said that “several hundred people” have entered the restricted access zone downtown since 8 a.m. Saturday morning and added that the majority of the individuals entering the zone have complied with the prohibited items list. However, it also stated that some items have been confiscated — including a pair of brass knuckles, a razor, a multi-purpose knife and aerosol cans.
Local civil rights attorney Jeff Fogel said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily that he thinks the searches constitute a violation of individuals’ Fourth Amendment rights.
“[Being searched while] walking down the streets of the City to be subject to be subject to search requires some reasonable suspicion,” Fogel said. “Now if the City had enough evidence to say that they could set up an emergency zone like this, they should have told us.”
Fogel said that the City has not offered the proper justification or the knowledge of a credible threat to justify the restrictions and bag searches downtown. He also said there could be litigation against the City after the anniversary weekend.
“But the important thing is, there is law, there are cases that talk about what the City has to prove in order to establish an emergency zone that would allow them to do this,” Fogel said. “They must have a reasonable basis, factually, that they cannot control the situation without resorting to these tools.”
City resident Jerry Berry told The Cavalier Daily he tried to enter downtown through one of the access points while walking with a cane, but a security officer would not let him proceed because the possession of sticks or rods that could be used as weapons is prohibited.
According to Berry, the officer said he would leave the cane at the dumpster so that Berry could pick it up on his way out of downtown. When Berry explained that he needed the cane to walk, the officer allowed him through security.
“The cops are damned if they do and damned if they don’t” Berry said. “Last year they didn’t do enough. Three people got killed, and so this year there’s a lot of people … who think it’s an overreaction. And I think as long as nobody gets hurt, this is fine.”
City resident Jenny Berry, Jerry Berry’s wife, views the bag search as excessive and complained of the amount of effort she and her husband had to make to enter downtown.
“I believe this is an overreaction” Jenny Berry said. “We had to… make a concerted effort to get here. And these businesses are losing thousands and thousands of dollars, because they [the city] screwed up last year.”
City resident Lisa Phillips said she thought the bag searches are justified due to the ongoing threat of white supremacists in Charlottesville.
“In general, I can be quite libertarian sometimes in view,” Phillips said. “However … I know that there are so many people who are a bit sociopathic, who would come here to make a stand for this ‘white revolution’ and this ‘white fight’ and this white nationalists stance. So I’m O.K. with it, because they exist.”