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Felony Arrest Of Student Who Bought Water Riles Many In Virginia

A college student spent the night in jail and was charged with felony counts after agents approached her car, suspecting she bought beer at this Harris Teeter grocery store in Charlottesville, Va.
A college student spent the night in jail and was charged with felony counts after agents approached her car, suspecting she bought beer at this Harris Teeter grocery store in Charlottesville, Va.

"We're the police."

"This is bottled water."

If an encounter between several young women and Virginia's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control agents had gone that smoothly, the participants might be looking back on a chance encounter as merely odd, perhaps even funny. Instead, they're coping with the aftermath of a brief flight from authorities that resulted in spending a night in jail and felony charges, now dropped, of hitting agents with a car. The state agency says it's reviewing the case.

The April 11 incident rose to prominence last week, after news spread that a University of Virginia student had been arrested by plainclothes ABC agents who tried to detain her and two fellow members of a sorority after they bought supplies for a charity event to benefit the Alzheimer's Association.

Their purchases, made at a Harris Teeter grocery store around 10 p.m. that night, included a box of LaCroix bottled water, cookie dough and ice cream, reports The Daily Progress of Charlottesville, Va.

Last week, prosecutors declined to pursue felony charges against Elizabeth Daly, 20, and she began to tell her side of the story publicly.

"They were showing unidentifiable badges after they approached us, but we became frightened, as they were not in anything close to a uniform," Daly, who was driving that night, told the Progress last week.

"I couldn't put my windows down unless I started my car, and when I started my car they began yelling to not move the car, not to start the car. They began trying to break the windows. My roommates and I were ... terrified," Daly stated.

As the story has gained attention, the Virginia ABC says it is conducting a second review of the incident, after an earlier review of the agents' actions found no problems.

Giving its version of events in a statement released Friday, Virginia's ABC says the first agent to approach Daly's car was a woman who raised her badge to investigate what she suspected to be an underage purchase of beer. When the car's occupants didn't comply with her instructions, the agency says, other officers joined in.

The group of agents reportedly numbered about six; the Progress reports that one of them drew their weapon and held it in a "ready" position.

"Rather than comply with the officers' requests, the subject drove off, striking two officers," the ABC said Friday. "She was not arrested for possessing bottled water, but for running from police and striking two of them with a vehicle."

"Another [agent] jumped onto the hood of the car as Daly and her friends dialed 911 to report the incident, according to the records," the Progress says. "The women apologized repeatedly minutes later when they stopped for a car with lights and sirens on, prosecutors said."

Daly admits that she and her friends panicked after being approached in the parking lot at night. Citing Daly's lawyer, The Progress notes that earlier that night, the women had listened to survivors of sexual assaults tell their stories, as part of a Take Back the Night event.

A passenger of the car spoke to the Progress as well, saying that the young women didn't know who the agents were until a Charlottesville police officer came to the scene. By that time, the women had been handcuffed.

"He helped me to the curb so that I could sit and calm down," said the woman, who did not want her name published. "He said to us that ABC officers have all the rights of regular officers, and then finally it became clear that these were ABC officers."

The case has prompted outrage in Virginia, where people have contacted the governor and other state officials to complain.

"They're calling the governor's office, they're calling our public affairs office, they're calling every office," ABC spokeswoman Maureen Haney tells the Progress. "We're hearing about it on Twitter, they're using our website's email form, they're commenting on our Facebook."

On Facebook, some users commented on a recent photo of plastic gallon jugs of clear liquid — part of a Moonshine bust posted by the agency — to say, "Might want to check if that's water or not. Could be embarrassing."

The matter has been jarring for Daly, who spent two months with felony charges hanging over her. She wrote a summary of her experience that has been posted online:

"This has been an extremely trying experience and one that has called into question what I value most: my integrity, honor and character. ... Cookie dough and ice cream for a fundraiser should not put you through an extremely degrading night and afternoon in jail, appearing in court, posting bond, having to pay an attorney ... not allowed to leave the state, causing you endless nights of no sleep, [a]ffecting your school work and final exams, wondering if you would be dismissed from school, wondering how this would damage your reputation and ability to get a job, all while waiting on pins and needles to see what the Commonwealth is going to offer you."

She concluded her statement by thanking her school, the dean, and others who have helped her and her family since the April incident.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.