Submission to What Shield?

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,

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.

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?

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.

13 thoughts on “Submission to What Shield?

  1. ExCop-LawStudent

    Part of the problem is the very nature of the attitude of ABC officers.

    Why in the world would they feel the need to draw their weapons and jump on the car?

    ABC officers are, as you said, not thought highly of, but this was over the top. Unfortunately, it is not limited to this state, it is pretty much the same throughout the U.S., where to the ABC officers, a minor in possession of alcohol is a major offense.

    Add to this the fact that they are state officers, which means there are no local control, and the officers tend to go over the top.

  2. Erika

    while the post as a whole is excelent, being from Virginia, i need to make a correction to avoid giving readers a false impression about tbe powers of the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

    Because of Virginia’s long history of Moonshing and local governemnts looking the other way, under the laws of the Commonwealth agents of the Virginia ABC Board are most definitely real cops with full police power:

    § 4.1-105. Police power of members, agents and employees of Board.

    Members of the Board are vested, and such agents and employees of the Board designated by it shall be vested, with like power to enforce the provisions of (i) this title and the criminal laws of the Commonwealth as is vested in the chief law-enforcement officer of a county, city, or town

  3. SHG

    While they may have the general authority of law-enforcement officers, do they have the jurisdiction?

  4. SHG

    There seems to a direct inverse correlation between how “not highly thought of” ancillary law enforcement officers are and how quickly they pull a weapon.

  5. John Neff

    I think the issue of jurisdiction is very confusing and with mutual assistance agreements and joint dispatch facilities it is even more confusing when whatever unit is closest is the first responder.

    Six state alcohol enforcement officers in one place at the same time seems odd to me. One per county seems excessive to me.

  6. Alex Stalker

    In my state, the answer to “do citizens have to submit” is unequivocally “yes.” Unfortunately, defending yourself against a plainclothes cop who is on duty, even if you didn’t have any idea it was a cop, or could be reasonably expected to have any idea it was a cop, is a felony assault. You also don’t get a self-defense instruction.

    The current situation is incredibly stupid, and I don’t know how a normal person is supposed to identify a cop without looking at their badge or uniform, or marked vehicle, or something. And any of those items can be faked or stolen. I suspect the situation won’t change until someone important is killed by plainclothes cops while trying to defend themselves.

    Ironically, the corollary to the first rule of policing seems to be that anyone trying to insure their safety from armed people who happen to be/claim to be cops is a threat to the cop making it home safely that night. The evil part of my mind wants a cop to assault an undercover cop, and then get convicted of a felony because he’s not allowed to defend himself against the undercover cop. Too bad no prosecutor in the world would file that charge.

  7. SHG

    These types of agency cops aren’t usually involved in any of the drug task forces. Every agency has a “force” to enforce its mandates and investigate its violations, but very few of these types have anything to do with regular or narcotics law enforcement.

  8. Erika

    Yes. While there seems to be an argument that 4.1-105 would limit their authority and jurisdiction to only crimes involving alcohol (which in this case wouldn’t help), it seems to be extremely unlikely to prevail based upon 19.2-81 which includes ABC Special Agents as persons with authority to investigate any suspected crime that they witness and make arersts.

  9. SHG

    It’s happened. Lots of spinning and hero praise. Terrible tragedy that couldn’t be helped.

  10. Erika

    You both are missing the real issue here – the Virginia ABC Special Agents are not a force designed to enforce underaged drinking laws – they were designed to fight against the manufacture, transport, and sale of Moonshine in Southwestern Virginia. That is to say that the Virginia ABC are designed to enforce extremely unpopular laws with often involve local officials against people who tend to be heavily armed. They tend to work closely with the FBI, the DEA, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office since prosecuting Moonshine cases on the state level in southwestern Virginia is futile so the cases all go federal.

    In other words, sending Virginia ABC Special Agents to check out underaged drinking is about like sending the DEA after college students who are smoking marijuana.

  11. SHG

    Actually, Erika, the point is about how people don’t know whether a person in plain clothes and some vague shield is a cop to whom they should submit or someone else from whom they should flee.

    We actually couldn’t care less what them thar Virginny revenuers are up to these days.  So no, while we were off on a bit of a tangent, we were not missing the point, only your point.

  12. ExCop-LawStudent

    It’s already happened. An undercover officer enforcing underage drinking along with the Florida ABT (alcohol police) discharged his pistol while trying to arrest a student. A nearby Orlando officer Smith then shot the undercover officer three times, killing him.

    The student was convicted of battering an officer and obstructing.

    Nothing happened to the Orlando officer.

  13. Frank

    You have Piggly Wiggly in your part of New York? Actually they’re more like Hannaford.

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