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Richmond officers to enter 'plea of immunity' in 2020 pepper spray case

Mark Janowski and Christopher Brown
Posted at 4:02 PM, Jun 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-03 18:22:24-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Two Richmond Police officers accused of wrongfully pepper spraying three young women in a car in May 2020 will enter a “plea of immunity” in Richmond Circuit Court.

Officers Mark Janowski and Christopher Brown were charged with three counts each of misdemeanor assault and battery for the May 30, 2020, incident during the city’s second night of civil unrest.

Rioters vandalized several buildings and set fire to multiple businesses, including the Memorial to the Women of the Confederacy on the Arthur Ashe Boulevard that night.

Mark Janowski.jpg
Mark Janowski

Court documents paint two different versions of the incident even though there is body camera video, as first reported by the Richmond Times Dispatch.

The officers’ defense said a vehicle stopped in the middle of North Belvidere Street while passengers screamed obscenities at the officers. A “senior officer” then orders Janowski to pepper spray inside the car after the three young women were ordered to drive away and leave the area.

However, prosecutors wrote in response that the vehicle was stopped behind several cars at a stop light.

Christopher Brown.jpg
Christopher Brown

“They were not engaged in any unlawful or riotous behavior,” the prosecution stated.

CBS 6 Legal Analyst Todd Stone, a former Richmond prosecutor, said the First Amendment protects the passengers’ rights to call names at the officers.

“The prosecution is going to say they sprayed them in a closed area, in the car, in the face which is dangerous and unjustified at this time,” Stone explained. “It’s got to be reasonable force and it’s got to be directed at the people who are actually involved in the riots.”

The city’s Commonwealth Attorneys will also argue the officers’ conduct violated RPD policy regarding pepper spraying. Policy states it should only be used in “extreme circumstances.”

Court documents filed last month revealed the officers plan to enter a plea of immunity since state code exempts them from criminal charges when tasked with quelling a riot.

“This was clearly ’such force as is reasonably necessary to disperse them,’” according to the defense.

Stone said the judge or jury must decide whether the officers were acting outside the scope of their duties.

“Officers almost always have a level of immunity that protects them, but they have to be acting within the scope of their duties and the scope of their employment,” he explained.

It is rare for any officer to be found guilty while on the job, but Stone said that doesn’t mean this specific case won’t result in a conviction.

“Did the police officers come over because they were upset that the names were being called to them or did he come over because he really thought these people were a threat to incite a riot?” Stone asked.

The officers are due in Richmond Circuit Court on Monday.