UVA Student, Bloodied By State Liquor Agents, Sues For $3M

By Sameer Rao Oct 23, 2015

When Martese Johnson was violently arrested by Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) officers oustide a college party in March, it was caught on video—which then went viral and prompted significant outrage and protests. 

Now, the 21-year-old University of Virginia student is suing the involved officers for $3 million. The suit, which was filed in a U.S. District Court in Charlottesville on Tuesday, names the three involved officers, as well as the ABC agency and director Shawn P. Walker, as defendants. The suit alleges unlawful detention and the use of excessive force. 

Johnson was arrested after being turned away from a bar near the UVA campus on suspicion of using a fake ID (which was later verified as being valid). He was initially restrained by two officers before, according to the lawsuit, they "all of a sudden and without provocation…slammed Martese into the brick walkway, face first, causing Martese to suffer a severe laceration to his forehead and scalp." A third officer then assisted in the arrest. In the video, Johnson, who is black, can be heard calling the white arresting officers racist. 

In the aftermath, Johnson was taken away in a police van with his hands cuffed and his legs shackled, before being treated for the gashes on his head that required stitches and left scars. Johnson was initially charged with obstruction of justice and public intoxication, though the charges were dropped.

The prosecutor also determined that the arresting officers did nothing wrong, but the incident nonetheless prompted Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to order additional training for ABC officers and implement a taskforce to evaluate the agency’s practices. Although the taskforce did not strip the ABC of law enforcement duties, it did recommend that it emphasize regulatory practices over enforcement. McAuliffe also ordered a state investigation that also concluded that the officers did not use aggressive tactics. 

Johnson has spoken out about the arrest and police brutality, including penning an editorial that appears in this month’s Vanity Fair where he talks about the arrest, police brutality in his native South Side Chicago neighborhood and the need for law enforcement reform:

We must fight vehemently for policy reform that creates a safer, more welcoming United States for all of its citizens. We need to look closely at how and whom we recruit to become law enforcement officers. Once recruited, officers nationwide should be tasked with completing diversity and communication trainings before earning authority and arrest power. Funding must be reallocated to enhance resources and prioritize quality in policing instead of quantity, as well as stripped from underperforming police forces. Formal positions must be created, delegating police and community liaisons to maintain positive and transparent relations. And our state and local representatives must become accessible and accountable at all times, encouraging proactive community steps instead of reactive ones. We can only achieve these goals as one community. 

Every morning I look in the mirror and am forced to relive the trauma that was the morning of March 18, 2015. I know that if my head hit the pavement differently that night, I could be dead. Now a fourth year at the University of Virginia, I am determined to be the first in my family to graduate successfully from a four-year university, and I believe that this generation of Americans can surpass my efforts and take proactive steps in their communities to deter an epidemic that rages rampant throughout the United States. 


(H/t The GuardianThe Cavalier DailyVanity Fair