University of Virginia student Martese Johnson, who was arrested in a bloody encounter by liquor control agents in March, filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. Johnson seeks $3 million for his suffering of “physical injuries and severe mental anguish due to egregious nature of the Agents’ actions.”
It was St. Patrick’s Day and University of Virginia students were filing into Trinity Irish Pub in Charlottesville, VA, to celebrate. Johnson – who was 20 at the time – tried to do the same when he was refused entry over issues with his identification card. As he turned to leave, Johnson was approached by three ABC agents. In a video that went viral in the approaching days, millions of Americans nationwide saw what happened next – Johnson, bloodied and in anguish, pinned to the sidewalk. He spent several hours in jail that night.
According to Johnson’s lawsuit, the ABC police officers “brutally assaulted, seized, arrested, and jailed Martese, without probably cause and in violated of the United States Constitution, federal statuses, and the laws of Virginia, believing (falsely and without sufficient information) that Martese had presented a fake identification card to gain entry to a restaurant and bar on University Avenue in the City of Charlottesville, Virginia.”
The lawsuit claims that the identification card Johnson used to get into the bar was valid. The officers also citied intoxication as another reason for his arrest, although testimony from the Trinity Irish Pub and results from the breathalyzer test showed that was not the case. Johnson was initially charged with obstruction of justice but in June, prosecutor Warner “Dave” Chapman cleared him of all charges.
The lawsuit, filed in Charlottesville, VA, cites multiple allegations including unlawful detention, a failure to train or supervise the officers properly, false arrest, and excessive use of force.
“Agents of ABC have a history of aggressive, excessive and unjustified behavior in effectuating their duties,” the lawsuit said.
According to Johnson, the first ABC officer did not identify himself before touching the student on his arm. He also claims the officers failed to recite Miranda rights to him while he was being placed under arrest.
“I sustained three gashes on my head (one requiring 10 stitches to close), facial swelling, a busted lip, and cuts and bruises on my body,” Johnson wrote in a Vanity Fair article earlier this month. “The scars on my face and head will likely remain for the rest of my life.”
“Martese’s bloody arrest captured national attention and sparked an intensive review of law enforcement policies, procedures, and training,” Johnson’s lawyer, Daniel Watkins, said in a statement Tuesday.
The officers involved in the incident were placed under probation until August, when a review showed they did not breach policy. Johnson was forced to withdraw from a class and missed multiple weeks at the university. Despite Johnson’s ordeal, he is focused on a much larger issue – the national debate on law enforcement and the role they play in the lives of millions of African Americans.
“Why would I be subjected to such violence when so many other students in similar circumstances – so many other students that same night – were left alone?” Johnson wrote. “With the untold thousands of college students in Charlottesville that night, it is difficult to believe that my race did not play a factor in the way I was handled by the officers.”
Johnson’s arrest sparked protests all over the country in the following weeks, with many asking the same questions. #JusticeForMartese joined those of other African American victims at the hands of law enforcement – Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Samuel DuBose, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Tanisha Anderson – and started a new level of conversation. Martese Johnson was a smart, family-oriented, politically active black student at the University of Virginia – one of many – so what did he do to deserve brutality to that extent? What did any of them do to serve it?
“These officers would probably never admit to being racist, and it is because they truly believe that they are not,” Johnson wrote. “Still their inclination to police a black male more violently than a white male conveys a different message. The officers did not see a University of Virginia student out with his peers; they saw a young black male with a high-top fade, a gold chain, some tennis shoes, and a hoodie. In their minds, I could not possible have been a member of the “community that they had sworn to protect.”