Several versions of the story of college students arrested buying water circulated through Facebook and the internet this week. Something about this story troubled me. Several things actually.
The primary issue stewing in the back of mind: what if they had been black men who were high school dropouts? Would they still be sitting in jail? Would the public defender have been able to obtain such a positive outcome? Would the prosecutor believe the account of seemingly innocent men purchasing water, approached by plainclothes officers in an illegal detention?
My cynical lawyer mind answers no.
The initial internal review by Virginia ABC indicates their officers did nothing wrong. Really, then why were they trying to detain citizens who purchased water? What “intelligence” or “information” led them suspect such illicit and criminal behavior? Are these officers too ignorant to know that the purchase made included water? Six officers, guns drawn for a suspected underage alcohol purchase?
In our society, we are taught to respect the police. Sometimes, their zeal to arrest even for the most minor, and arguably stupid laws, creates danger for themselves and for the public. This reliance of law enforcement creates a false sense of confidence in the word of law enforcement. In many instances this reliance is well founded.
Some officers, however, rely on this credibility to cut corners, abuse rights because “you might beat the charge, but you can’t beat the ride.” This attitude creates criminals and criminal histories for people who behaved in a lawful manner but somehow became caught up in the net of an investigation or maybe offended law enforcement.
Should we be skeptical in the Virginia case? Clearly the prosecutor was skeptical. We should however listen carefully to everyone not just those people who look innocent from the outside. Every person is innocent until proven guilty. Not just the ones who have spotless records.