ABC On the Prowl

Three months ago, a 20-year old college student named Elizabeth Daly was leaving the Harris Teeter in Charlottesville, Virginia with some bottled water. Suddenly, a bunch of men in plain clothes jumped out, yelling and waving guns. Daly tried to drive away and called 9/11, who realized these were agents of Virginia’s Alcohol Beverage Control. They thought she had done some underage alcohol purchasing. Once that was sorted out, they let her go.

Haha! I’m just kidding. They actually tossed her in jail for the night and charged her with assaulting an officer because she grazed one of the plainclothes gun-waving ABC agents with her car. The charges were finally dropped last week about the time the story went viral. And today, 911 calls were released that confirm that she thought she was being attacked by God-knows-whom and another from a bystander who thought she was being attacked by thugs. So far, everything confirms her version of events. And so far, the ABC thinks their agents acted properly.

It tells you a lot about where we are in this country that if a bunch of armed men in plain clothes are running toward you and screaming, you should assume they are cops even if you’ve done nothing wrong. It tells you a lot that, in the shadow of Mr. Jefferson’s University, this would be considered a reasonable conversation:

Martha: “We should call the police! Some guy is running down the road, brandishing a gun and yelling about booze!”

Tom: “Don’t worry, Martha, that’s just an ABC agent. Someone may have sipped some wine.”

More from national treasure Radley Balko (whose book I just bought):

– Is it standard procedure for ABC agents to jump out on college students in the parking lots of stores that sell alcohol? (According to the local paper the Daily Progress, several other students were apprehended the same way.) Is it standard procedure for them to draw their weapons?

I lived in Charlottesville for six years and frequented the Harris Teeter late at night. To my recollection, they only sell beer and wine so mistaking bottled water for booze is kind of hard to do. Harris Teeter is just off campus in a strip mall with a very large parking lot. At night, it’s pretty quiet. It’s not exactly the streets of LA or something. There was no reason, no reason on Earth, why — even if we assume busting 20-year-olds for drinking is a good idea — this couldn’t have been handled two agents in uniform walking up to her and asking for ID. In fact, I’ve seen ABC agents do it that way.

This is only the latest incident in the creeping use of more police force to enforce increasingly petty crimes. In fact, just a couple weeks ago, a dozen government officials — some of them armed police officers — raided the Family Wash bar in Nashville in what police claim was an inspection to be sure the business was complying with the state’s alcohol regulations. Owner Jamie Rubin told the Tennessean, “They may want to call it a ‘spot check.’ But you can talk to anybody that was in there – employees, patrons – it was a raid. That’s what it was.”

Balko lists a few more episodes. You really should read the whole thing.

Several thoughts emerge and I’ll coalesce them into what I would do were I a state legislator in Virginia.

First, I would cut ABC’s enforcement budget by two-thirds. Busting underage purchasers requires one agent, maybe two. If they had six for this, they clearly have three times as many agents as they need. Oh Hal!, you wail, it’s unfair of me to tar an agency based on one incident (even though this isn’t an isolated incident)? Well, that’s the same logic the bluenoses used when they justified raising the drinking age to 21 in the first place. And, as I have argued before, we clearly have a surplus of law in this country.

Second, I would move to lower the drinking age back to 18 or abolish it altogether. The federal government has been allowed to get away with its highway money blackmail for far too long. Abolish the drinking age and let them sue. Encourage other states to do the same. There has never been any evidence that the 21-year drinking age does anything other than create criminals. The federal government doesn’t have the stones to back down; maybe a rebellion by the states could do it.

None of that will happen, of course. As I’ll argue in tonight’s post, America has become a nation of sheep led by sheep. Cuts to ABC won’t happen because “OMG! Kids!” And the drinking age won’t be lowered because “OMG! Kids!!!” And I doubt the paramilitary tactics used will be reigned in because, “OMG! Criminals!”

So listen to that 911 call. Because eventually, we will all be experiencing it. Unless we wake the hell up.