RICHMOND, Va (WRIC) — After three young women were allegedly pepper-sprayed while sitting in idle traffic last summer amid citywide protests, two Richmond police officers charged with assault face hurdles ahead of their immunity defense.
New court documents detail accusations against Officers Christopher Brown, and Mark Janowski following indictments in October; a grand jury reviewed the alleged conduct of 18 officers and responding to protest following George Floyd’s death.
8News obtained recent court filings from the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, detailing the early morning events of May 31, in which the two officers are accused.
According to the prosecution’s case, “one of the victims rolled down the front passenger window” of a car stopped in traffic on Bellevue Avenue, and someone “began shouting obscenities at the officers. nearby.”
One officer shouted “why don’t you get out of the car?” “another said “spray them it doesn’t matter.”
That’s when Brown and Janowski allegedly walked toward the car and told the victims to leave. However, the car was stuck behind other traffic and could not immediately move.
Both officers then sprayed “at the heads and faces of the victims,” which is not department protocol when deploying chemical irritants, the case cites.
Brown and Janowski’s defense plans to argue both officers are protected by immunity.
Criminal defense attorney Steve Benjamin says the Virginia code clearly defines immunity, noting “the challenge for the officers is going to be to prove that what they were doing was something other than gratuitously abusing three girls who were mouthing off to them.”
But based on the prosecution’s findings, Benjamin says the immunity case likely won’t qualify.
“In order to have immunity for their actions, they have to show that it was necessary to spray into the car in order to either make the girls disburse—which it appears they should have no interest in, they were stopped and blocked traffic—or to arrest them. There is no indication that they were going to arrest them, there is no indication from the facts that were reported that the girls were committing any crime,” he said.
The commonwealth’s attorney’s office said none of these victims tried to leave their car, make threats toward officers or even throw objects at them.
According to the officers’ plea of immunity, the defense claims Janowski deployed the irritant to “move a vehicle from the roadway suspected of participating in the riot that had stopped in the roadway to scream obscenities at the officers assembled.”
The plea cites Virginia code detailing officers’ duties to disperse unlawful or riotous assemblies.
Officers reportedly smiled and joked about the incident afterward, according to the commonwealth attorney’s filing.
One officer allegedly said, “they probably can’t breathe right now,” it quoted.
The victims then reportedly drove away but had to stop because the driver couldn’t safely see due to the ‘fog’ of the spray.
Brown and Janowski were expected in court this week for a hearing, but the appearance is held until Monday for more legal research, according to the commonwealth’s attorney’s office.