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The most recent directives on the agency’s law enforcement procedures don’t signal much change.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control’s most recent policy changes fall far short of offering public reassurance that its law enforcement procedures and training are adequate to the job after the debacle of last spring’s great sparkling-water bust in Charlottesville.
Procedural tweaks announced last week should be all the prompting lawmakers need to initiate an independent study to examine whether the enforcement function belongs in a state agency where the primary mission is, if it has not always been, alcohol sales rather than control.
That inherent conflict, going back almost four decades to the end of Prohibition, has grown as the commonwealth has come to rely more and more on so-called sin taxes on gambling and drinking.
No one can claim either as a necessity (except, perhaps, the poor souls who become addicted). People pick their poison and generate revenue for public coffers without complaint. There’s no political backlash, and even a bit of political patronage to be had as a result. What’s not to like?
The tug between different missions creates some dissonance, though, according to reporting by the Charlottesville Daily Progress, which goes back to a 2003 report by a committee of ABC employees looking into a merger of its law enforcement arm with the state police. Its conclusion: “Regulations and enforcement nearly always take a back seat to profits.”
Like most reports, that one ended up on a shelf. But the idea arises from time to time, most recently at the last General Assembly session, when state Sen. Creigh Deeds tried, and failed, to get a Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission study on consolidating state law enforcement agencies.
Most recently, that is, until the April beer bust that wasn’t turned into a police action-chick horror flick parody: a carload of sorority friends screaming in panic in a dark parking lot, surrounded by a half-dozen threatening persons unknown, one wielding a gun, another attempting to smash in a window with a flashlight. The driver fled.
As the whole country later learned, thanks to social media, the threatening persons unknown turned out to be undercover ABC agents in plainclothes who had suspected that a crate of sparkling water was beer and that the people who bought it — University of Virginia student Elizabeth Daly, 20, the driver, and her cohorts — were under age.
Daly was charged with three felonies for fleeing, though in evident fear for her own and her passengers’ safety. The public was aghast. The commonwealth’s attorney eventually dropped the charges.
And the ABC?
After initially clearing its agents of any wrongdoing, it was moved to require a uniformed agent wearing an overgarment marked “ABC Special Agent” to act as a contact with suspects in any future undercover operations.
Some new directives were issued last week. And an internal review of Daly’s arrest will soon be complete. That should not be the end of the questions it has raised, though, about the proper oversight for enforcement of the state’s alcohol control laws.
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