The two felony charges of assaulting a police officer brought against Tara Shea, the 28-year-old Bowie, Md. woman who leveled charges of police brutality against the Vienna police department, were amended to a single misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct at her hearing Monday.
“There was a discussion between our office, the town prosecutor and the defense as to an appropriate disposition,” said Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Marc Birnbaum, who prosecuted the case for the county. “All the parties involved believed this was most appropriate, given all the circumstances of the case.”
Had Shea been convicted on both assault charges, brought by officers S.R. Simon and L.E. Monaco, she would have faced a sentence of up to 10 years and no less than one year.
Through attorney James Davis, partner to defending attorney Peter Greenspun, Shea entered an Alford plea to the disorderly conduct charge, indicating that she admitted no guilt but acknowledged that the prosecution had enough evidence to convict her. Judge Ian M. O’Flaherty upheld the prosecution’s recommendation that Shea receive a 60-day sentence, suspended on the conditions of general good behavior and her participating in mental health counseling.
POLICE STOPPED SHEA on Nutley Street in the early morning of Saturday, Jan. 7 on suspicion of intoxication. During her arrest, a struggle ensued, which resulted in Shea being transported to the Fairfax County Hospital emergency room before she was taken to jail.
Following the arrest, her father, Timothy Shea, said his daughter had been “totally compliant” with her arresting officers, who violently subdued her with little or no provocation. He said she suffered a broken nose, damaged orbital bones around her eyes, a split lip and multiple scratches and bruises.
Birnbaum, referring to the police report, said that when the officer who conducted Shea’s field sobriety tests began to arrest her, she reacted by resisting, striking him in the chest, grabbing his throat and vest, and kicking him. Birnbaum said that when the other officer on the scene came to help, Shea was struck, fell to the ground, began bleeding and spit blood at the officers, at which point she was sprayed with pepper spray.
Town Attorney Steve Briglia said his understanding had been that, as Shea was struggling with the officers on the side of the curb, they had fallen on top of each other, after which, she had continued resisting arrest while banging and grinding her own head on the pavement. Briglia said he was told that Shea was still banging her head against the gurney as she was taken to the hospital.
“It’s unfortunate that she was hurt,” said Briglia. “But it’s the town’s position that the reason she got hurt is that she lost control of her own faculties.” He said there was “no evidence to support the idea that the officers beat her up.”
Briglia said her reaction, as described by the officers, is the reason she is being sent to mental health counseling. He noted that Shea has no prior criminal record. “By our accounts, this is aberrational behavior for her,” said Briglia, adding that the incident indicated that she had “something else going on.”
However, he said, the assault charges seemed excessive. “Virginia doesn’t have, per se, a resisting arrest charge,” he said. “In my mind, you distinguish between the two.” Briglia said the town was satisfied that Shea bore some criminal responsibility for the incident.
Of the officers' account of the struggle, Greenspun asked, "What would you expect?" Referring to Shea's mug shot, taken after she was treated at the hospital, he said, "I guess it could be said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and we'll just leave it at that."
However, he said he was pleased with the disposition. "Tara was faced with extremely serious charges, which carried a great deal of mandatory prison time," he said, adding that the case was resolved "in an extremely favorable fashion" for his client. He commended the "very professional manner" in which the case was discussed between the defense and the prosecution.
Greenspun declined to comment on whether any civil action would be taken regarding the incident, noting only that Shea and her family were "happy to move on with their lives."
VIENNA POLICE Capt. Mike Miller said the matter of police conduct has been the subject of an investigation, the first phase of which will be concluded shortly. Miller said investigators, both independent and within the police department, first have studied the case to determine whether the officers engaged in any criminal conduct. "It's my understanding that they're getting ready to wrap that up, with the plea being entered," said Miller. Findings will be presented to the commonwealth's attorney.
He said his police will next examine the case to determine whether anything could be done differently to avoid such an incident in the future. "We'll look at policies and procedures that are in place now," he said, adding that if any of the department's own policies had been violated during the incident, measures would be taken to avoid future violations.
One course of action that is being considered, said Miller, is the installation of cameras in Vienna police cars. "That's something the chief and I have considered for the near future," he said, adding that the department has already been in contact with a company regarding camera installation.
"Cameras would have definitely shed a lot of light on that situation, as to what happened out there," he said.
Last Monday, Shea’s charge of driving while intoxicated was amended to a reckless driving charge, to which she pled guilty, and a charge of carrying a concealed weapon was dropped. Briglia said the D.W.I charge was amended because she had been entitled to have the blood sample, taken at the hospital, submitted for independent testing, and it had taken too long to get the results. The sample kept by the town, he said, had registered slightly over the legal limit. He said the weapon, which he described as a collapsible hunting blade, was probably not of the type that would be illegal to carry in a belt or pocket.
Shea’s father maintained that she used the knife to open boxes at her job as a chef.