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UVA Student Martese Johnson Files $3M Civil Suit Against ABC

Posted: Updated: Nov 03, 2015 11:20 AM
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) -

The University of Virginia student at the center of a controversial arrest is filing a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC).

Martese Johnson’s legal team filed a 22-page civil suit against the ABC in the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia on Tuesday, October 20.

Johnson is suing the ABC, ABC Director Shawn P. Walker, and the three ABC agents involved in his arrest: John S. Cielakie, Jared B. Miller, and Thomas S. Custer.

On March 18, Johnson was arrested outside Trinity Irish Pub on the UVA Corner. The arrest drew national attention because images of Johnson with a bloody face quickly spread across social media. Fellow UVA students rallied around Johnson and protesters took to the streets of Charlottesville.

Johnson’s seven-count lawsuit claims his civil rights were abused, labeling the late night encounter with ABC agents as assault and battery. The counts also include excessive force, false arrest, negligence, and failure to train. 

Johnson is seeking $3 million in damages.

"This is a significant case. It presents important issues and we look forward to litigating it and seeing how everything turns out," said Daniel Watkins, Johnson’s attorney.

The Virginia State Police (VSP) investigation into Johnson's arrest was completed in April, and turned over to Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney Dave Chapman.

Watkins filed a motion in Charlottesville General District Court in late May, saying ABC officers lacked reasonable suspicion to make the arrest. The attorney says one of the ABC agents grabbed Johnson's elbow as he walked away. Johnson pulled his arm away and that's when two agents slammed him to the ground. The cut on his head required 10 stitches.

In June, Charlottesville General District Court Judge Robert Downer, Jr. dismissed two misdemeanor counts against Johnson at Chapman's request. Chapman issued a press release saying that his office would not seek prosecution in the case. Additionally, he said the commonwealth has no intention of pressing criminal charges against the ABC agents involved in the arrest.

"Most of the time the case is settled, and obviously it's not in anybody's best interest to air all the dirty linen in public," said legal analyst Lloyd Snook.

NBC29 asked Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D) about Johnson’s civil case because his office would represent the state agency and its employees. Herring stated, "I haven't had an opportunity to review the suit papers, so unfortunately I'm not able to comment yet on that."

Former UVA student Elizabeth Daly also sued the Virginia ABC following her controversial arrest outside the Harris Teeter store in Charlottesville.

Plain-clothed ABC agents converged on Daly as she was leaving the store in April 2013. The agents thought the sparkling water she had was alcohol.

Watkins says one of the officers involved in Johnson’s arrest also participated in Daly's incident. John Cielakie was one of the three ABC agents seen in cellphone video of Johnson's arrest. NBC29 could not verify which agent is Cielakie, although the ABC says he began work there in August 2012.

According to court documents, Cielakie attempted to break the passenger window of a vehicle driven by Daly with his steel flashlight, causing a loud bang. It was at that point, the lawsuit claims, Daly feared for her life and drove off.

Daly was seeking $40 million at the time, but settled for more than $200,000 last year.

Statement from Williams Mullen and Manatt, Phelps & Phillips:

Williams Mullen and Manatt, Phelps & Phillips have released the following statement by Daniel P. Watkins regarding the civil suit filed on behalf of his client, Martese Johnson, against the Virginia department of Alcoholic Beverage Control:

Four months after he was exonerated of criminal wrongdoing, Martese Johnson filed suit today against the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (“ABC”), its director Shawn Walker, and the three officers who wrongfully arrested him early on the morning of March 18, 2015. Martese’s bloody arrest captured national attention and sparked an intensive review of law enforcement policies, procedures, and training.

Williams Mullen lawyers Daniel Watkins, Charles E. James, and John Davis will continue to represent Martese in this matter, and will serve jointly as co-counsel with Washington, D.C., attorneys Benjamin Chew, Joshua Drian, and Diana Eisner of the Los Angeles-based law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.

This case has provoked change in the Commonwealth. In March, Governor Terry McAuliffe signed an Executive Order to improve law enforcement in the Virginia ABC. “Recent events involving special agents of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) in Charlottesville have underscored longstanding concerns about the agency’s Bureau of Law Enforcement,” McAuliffe said, “and exposed the need for more extensive training and oversight.”

On Sept. 29, Attorney General Mark Herring announced an initiative to provide current and few law enforcement officers with opportunities for “contemporary, evidence-based training on topics including impartial policing, bias awareness, situational decision making, de-escalation, and use of force.”

The suit was filed in federal court in Charlottesville, Virginia, less than a mile away from where the encounter with law enforcement agents took place.

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