By Patrick Szabo and Kara C. Rodriguez
It was a year and a half ago that Michael Benet Wyche, a Black man from Manassas, was pulled over for speeding through Leesburg. An altercation with the arresting officer landed Wyche in jail with a bloody lip and felony and misdemeanor charges.
Loudoun prosecutors opted to forgo prosecuting either charge, under the direction of Commonwealth’s Attorney Buta Biberaj, who found the evidence did not support the charges.
And in an email to the Washington Post, Biberaj wrote “we were concerned that the events of this case could and would fracture the trust our community has for our justice system. This is a case that will provide our law enforcement partners the opportunity to use to educate their members, provide additional training, and ensure that the events resulting in the death of George Floyd never occur in Loudoun County.”
Biberaj has not returned Loudoun Now’s requests for comment.
At about a half hour before midnight on May 5, 2019, Leesburg Police Officer Jonathan Graham was patrolling the area of East Market Street when Wyche, 32, passed him in a 2004 Ford Explorer traveling 35-40 mph in a 25-mph zone, according to Graham’s testimony in a Sept. 24 preliminary hearing. When Graham commenced a traffic stop, Wyche pulled over at the Sunoco/7-Eleven gas station located at the corner of East Market Street and Fort Evans Road Southeast.
There, Graham testified during the preliminary hearing, he “observed in plain view scrap marijuana in the center console” of Wyche’s car. Graham asked Wyche if he smoked marijuana, to which Wyche replied that he did, but only in Washington, DC—where it is legal for anyone aged 21 and up to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and smoke it on private property.
Graham said he then called for backup, which brought Officer Matthew Connell to the scene. Graham testified that when Wyche refused to exit his car, he started the ignition and began rolling his window up. Graham then tried to grab Wyche through the window, at which point his right arm got stuck and Wyche began “clawing” at his wrist, Graham testified.
Graham said he believed Wyche was reaching for a gun, which is why Graham said he used a “closed-hand distraction technique” on Wyche. Graham clarified that technique is a “punch to the face,” which, he testified, he performed multiple times.
Graham and Connell were eventually able to open the car door and bring Wyche to the ground. Graham testified that he told Wyche to “stop resisting” numerous times during the scuffle.
When asked if Graham was able to later test the marijuana scraps he saw on Wyche’s center console, Graham said there was not enough of the substance to effectively test it.
Wyche, who was taken from the scene with a bloody lip and facial bruising, was arrested and charged with felony assault and battery on a law enforcement officer and misdemeanor obstruction of justice. He was released from the Loudoun County Adult Detention Center on a $5,000 secured bond and was required to submit to drug and alcohol screening and a mental health evaluation.
Ten months later, in March this year, a Loudoun Circuit Court judge granted then-Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Amy McMullen’s March 5 motion to not prosecute the felony assault charge. And earlier this month, Wyche’s misdemeanor obstruction of justice charge was dropped, also at the request of the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.
According to Biberaj’s Sept. 3 motion to dismiss the misdemeanor charge with prejudice, there were “considerable inconsistencies” in the Sept. 25, 2019, criminal complaint, in the police report, in the police bodycam video and in the preliminary hearing transcript. Those findings resulted in “a lack of confidence” in Graham’s testimony.
“There is no reasonable expectation by the Commonwealth’s Attorney that any trier of fact will render a finding of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Biberaj’s motion read.
Leesburg Town Councilman Ron Campbell, also a Black man, said he didn’t question the decision of the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office to dismiss the charges against Wyche.
The Leesburg Police Department stands by its officers’ actions.
Police Chief Greg Brown asserted that the charges filed against Wyche were justified. He stated that the magistrate issued the warrants of arrest because “[Graham] established probable cause to do so.”
“Although the Police Department and the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office don’t always agree on that course of action, the officers of the Leesburg Police Department will always strive to provide quality police services in order to keep the community safe,” he stated.
As for the use of force the officers used against Wyche, Brown stated that his department found that to be appropriate.
To come to that conclusion, Brown said the Leesburg Police Department conducted an in-depth administrative review of the incident that included a review of the officers’ bodycam video footage, departmental policies, internal reports and training procedures.
Brown recently discussed those policies with the Citizens for a Better Leesburg civic group, which Campbell heads.
Campbell said the Wyche incident goes beyond the events of May 5, 2019.
“If we start going issue to issue, incident to incident, we’ll just be chasing issues rather than looking at policy,” he said.
Brown noted that the department conducts comprehensive administrative reviews on all use-of-force incidents. Last year, the department investigated 28 use-of-force incidents among 48,262 documented contacts.
Mayor Kelly Burk asserted that the officers’ actions were in line with the law and that Biberaj was merely doing her job by determining that there was not enough evidence in the case to prosecute Wyche.
“I firmly support any and all efforts to make sure all interactions between the police and the public are fair and justified, upholds the rule of law, and protects the dignity of all people,” she said. “I’m not in a position to second guess the prosecutor’s position. I believe the chief and the Police Department gave us a plausible explanation and that the officer followed the law.”
Burk noted that Biberaj “did not at any time during the case assert there was officer misconduct.”
Commenting on Wyche’s refusal to comply with Graham’s commands, Brown stated that it’s rare for motorists to not comply with officers during traffic stops. He said officers respond to each of those instances on a case-by-case basis.
“The officers and staff of the Leesburg Police Department have consistently exemplified high standards in service to the community, and maintained an excellent reputation of integrity, accountability, transparency and restraint,” Brown stated.
Still, because some Leesburg Town Council members don’t question the performance of the Leesburg Police Department, Campbell said, he feels citizen involvement moving forward would be key, noting that “there can be amicable differences of opinion in cases like these without creating opposition.”
“There are things that can happen in terms of outcomes that none of us may like,” he said. “If we have to issue course corrections or want a different type of enforcement in our community, we have to have that difficult type of conversation without trying to create sides.”
Burk said the Leesburg Town Council does not need to take any action on the incident since the Police Department and Commonwealth’s Attorney “took the action they both felt was necessary.”