The story of University of Virginia sorority gal, Elizabeth Daly, having been swarmed by a half dozen ABC agents, raised hackles and dismay for the absurd excess of the faux-cops, who were given guns without guidance. As explained by Brian Doherty at Reason,
So they made a mistake, thinking sparkling water was beer. Mistakes happen. And Doherty forgets that sparkling water is a gateway beverage. Next it will be soda. Then who knows what? Isn’t it worth a gun drawn now to stop a lifetime of Mountain Dew?
A group of state Alcoholic Beverage Control agents clad in plainclothes approached her, suspecting the blue carton of LaCroix sparkling water to be a 12-pack of beer. Police say one of the agents jumped on the hood of her car. She says one drew a gun. Unsure of who they were, Daly tried to flee the darkened parking lot.
“They were showing unidentifiable badges after they approached us, but we became frightened, as they were not in anything close to a uniform,” she recalled Thursday in a written account of the April 11 incident.
But the real issue in the stop stemmed from the annoyance felt by the agents, who suffer from a general lack of self-esteem due to their having shield and guns, and yet still considered the pimples of law enforcement, that their commands weren’t immediately followed. Contempt of Alcoholic Beverage Control Agent may not have much of a ring to it, but is more than enough to get them all riled up.
At Concurring Opinions, Frank Paquale asked the harder question about the stop:
We know that, in theory, citizens have some rights vis-a-vis police. But in practice, does it make sense to simply submit to any person waving a badge?What occurred to Daly reflects an unfortunately common scenario: she was engaged in the heinous conduct of purchasing sparkling water. The significance is that Elizabeth Daly was doing nothing that would have suggested to her any risk of confrontation or arrest by law enforcement. She wasn’t on guard for it. She wasn’t prepared for it.
If she heard a fully uniformed cop screaming from across the parking lot of the Harris Teeter (which I assume to be the Virginia flavor of the Piggly Wiggly), she would never have thought the cop to be yelling at her. Why would he? Why would anyone be interested in her? See the dilemma?
So when six people in plain clothes swarmed three girls who had no reason to anticipate anyone being unhappy with them in a parking lot, what were they to do? The agents were in street clothing, and looked like anybody else on the street, except that their badges were displayed.
There was once a time when nobody, but nobody, wore a copper shield except a police officer. Those days are long gone. There are a lot of shields floating around these days. Some worn by private individuals who want to be cops. Some worn by private individuals who want to use the pretense of being a cop to do bad things. Some worn by cops. Some worn by the empowered agents of the 37 thousand other agencies of government that have been given limited police powers.
They all have one thing in common: There is no way to read what the shield says unless you get up close and personal under circumstances that allow for clear-headed observation. And not to be overly technical, but even if it says “Police Officer,” that doesn’t end the inquiry. How can one tell if the shield is real of a phony? How can one tell if the shield is in the possession of a real cop? A shield alone leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
Police have addressed some of these issues by acknowledging that people being stopped on a dark road at night when there is no one around by an unmarked police car should be allowed to drive to a populated, lighted area before pulling over. Their unmarked cars have been turned to low profile cars, since few phony cops are willing to spend the dime to put markings on cars. Better that than another woman raped by a pretender.
Was Daly wrong not to immediately submit to authority because six people started screaming at her? Forget that it was for an asinine trivial violation, and that the agents appear to be pathologically stupid and out of control, and a disgrace to their agency. Let assume they had an actual reason to stop Daly and do so in such an aggressive manner. Did the shields alone suffice?
Underlying the question is the problem that the agents, who knew they were real agents and expected Daly to submit to their authority, lacked the capacity to grasp that their knowing who they were doesn’t mean Daly knows. This is a variation on narcissism, the assumption that the rest of the world automatically knows how important they are and will submit to their commands because they know who they are.
The shield isn’t good enough. And the potential outcome from such mindless expectation that people will be capable of knowing whether a swarm of six plain-clothed people with guns are law enforcement or rapists can be deadly. Daly might have run an agent or two down, but more likely an agent would have shot and killed a 20-year-old college student who bought sparkling water and failed to comply with his commands.
And you can bet that if bad went to worse, the agents would have been cleared of any wrongdoing, acting to protect themselves from harm by a young woman with no way of ascertaining what was happening. Fortunately, no one ended up with more than butthurt feelings here, although Daly sat in jail until the charges against her were dropped. Not that this isn’t a bad situation, but it’s far better than her parents planning her funeral. A tragic ending to an absurd story was by no means out of the question.