Internal investigation finds officer didn't violate policies during delegate's traffic stop

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CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. (WDBJ7) — The Christiansburg Police Department held a press conference Friday morning to release details of their internal investigation into Delegate Chris Hurst's traffic stop in January 2020.

Hurst was stopped early in the morning on January 26 after a Christiansburg officer, Lt. Stephen Swecker, observed a vehicle swerving across the right side fog-line of the roadway several times and briefly traveling over the posted speed limit on the U.S. 460 bypass, between Christiansburg and Peppers Ferry Road.

Swecker noticed Hurst's eyes were red and the car smelled of alcohol. After a routine check of his license, he asked Hurst to follow a pen with his eyes. After his performance, Swecker asked him to step out of the car for a field sobriety test and a breath test.

While Hurst struggled to walk and turn, Swecker determined his performance was satisfactory on all four of the other field tests. Hurst complied with the preliminary breath test and blew a .085 on his prelim breath test - an investigative tool that is not admissible in court.

The officer released Hurst without charges.

As a part of the internal investigation, the Christiansburg PD reviewed its department policies and the policies of the surrounding law enforcement agencies, interviewed Swecker, and reviewed his past performances with DUI interactions. The department also consulted a commonwealth's attorney.

In the 16 DUI arrests Lt. Swecker made over the past year, each driver failed the majority of field tests. Of the four field tests conducted on Hurst, one was failed.

The department stated Lt. Swecker has never arrested someone who passed more field tests than they failed. Additionally, of his alcohol-related arrests, the lowest prelim breath test result was .097.

The department stated this affirms their conclusion that Lt. Swecker was consistent with every other DUI case he investigated during the past year.

“Lt. Swecker is highly trained and has a great deal of experience in DUI enforcement, and as such, just as we do with all of our officers, we trust his judgment in using his discretion in order to be effective in the field,” Christiansburg Police Chief Mark Sisson said. “We understand not everyone will agree with Lt. Swecker’s decision not to arrest Chris Hurst, but Lt. Swecker was the one on scene, observing all of the relevant factors. We have full confidence that Lt. Swecker reached his conclusion based on objective observations and we have no reason to question his judgment or integrity.”

In a news release, the department stated:
"Once a determination has been reached that there is not probable cause to arrest an individual, an officer has limited authority to restrict that individual’s liberty. The Christiansburg Police Department has issued additional guidance to officers to encourage exploring all possible alternative modes of transportation - such as ride sharing or public transportation - in future encounters."

Chief Sisson said the internal investigation did identify a need to clarify agency policy with regard to the treatment of members of the General Assembly.

Because of the complex - and at times contradictory - nature of the provisions of the Code of Virginia and the Constitution of Virginia in this area, the Christiansburg Police Department has clarified its policy to state that while the General Assembly is in session, officers shall only arrest or charge members of the General Assembly for treason, felony offenses or offenses clearly constituting a breach of peace – which policy defines as violent offenses or an offense that creates a public disturbance or panic.

For all other offenses while the General Assembly is in session, officers shall document the offense, and if deemed warranted after consultation with the commonwealth’s attorney, obtain a warrant or summons for the offense after the session concludes.

Chief Sisson emphasized Lt. Swecker decided not to arrest Hurst because of his field results, not because of his legislative immunity. Due to this, the department will not pursue charges for Hurst once the General Assembly concludes.

“Over the past few weeks, we’ve received a lot of feedback from the public and understand not everyone agrees with the officer’s decision that night and will not agree with the results of this internal investigation,” Sisson said. “However, we remain confident in the judgement and integrity of our officers and trust them to make sound enforcement decisions based on objective, factual information and observations and to remain uninfluenced by social or political pressure. We continually review our procedures and performance and will always do so, particularly in matters of great public concern. We remain steadfast in our commitment to provide the best possible law enforcement service to our community.”

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A Virginia police department is launching an internal investigation after details were released on Wednesday about an incident in which a state delegate was let off by an officer after he was pulled over for driving under the influence.

Virginia State Delegate Chris Hurst (D-12) was pulled over early in the morning of Sunday, Jan. 26 by a Christiansburg police officer who saw him swerving and speeding.

Hurst was not charged after the responding officer said a preliminary breath test registered a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .085. According to official statements, the officer determined that by the time Hurst was taken to the magistrate's office for a formal breathalyzer test - which is the only admissible test in court - Hurst would be under the legal limit. Because of this, along with Hurst's overall performance during the field sobriety tests and coupled with the fact that Hurst had a sober companion in the vehicle who could drive him home, the officer released Hurst without charging him.

A series of text messages obtained by WDBJ7 on Wednesday showed that the officer, Lt. Stephen Swecker, notified his division commander of the traffic stop with Hurst shortly afterward. In it, they discussed Virginia laws regarding potential immunity for state legislators.

The city of Christiansburg said, in response to those discussions: "Additionally, according to Section IV, Article 9 of the Constitution of Virginia, unless they have committed treason, a felony or a breach of peace, legislators are immune from arrest while the General Assembly is in session. Neither the officer nor Hurst mentioned this law, but the officer was aware of the law's existence, because it's taught during the police academy. This provision of the State Constitution makes it highly unlikely that Hurst could have prosecuted in court even if he had been arrested. The officer weighed all of the factors and made a judgement call, as is done each and every time an officer decides whether or not to make an arrest. The officer, Lt. Stephen Swecker, is highly experienced in DUI detection and enforcement. He has been recognized and awarded by Mothers Against Drunk Driving on at least four occasions for his performance in this area."

Now, on Thursday, the Christiansburg Police Department announced that they are launching an internal investigation into the traffic stop and the actions taken by the officer during the encounter.

A release from the police department states:

"The Christiansburg Police Department shares the community’s concerns regarding the Jan. 26 traffic stop involving Chris Hurst and has launched an internal investigation to review if the actions taken during the encounter violated agency policy. Internal investigations must be complete within 30 days, and we will provide additional information once the investigation is complete. The department is also conducting a review of the policies governing DUI enforcement to ensure those policies promote public safety and adequate enforcement action when appropriate and legally permissible under the provisions of the Code of Virginia and the Constitution of the Commonwealth. Our goal and mission at the Christiansburg Police Department remains to provide the best possible law enforcement service to the community."

The department says no other statements or interviews will be given at this time.

About 2 a.m. on January 26, according to a statement from the city of Christiansburg, Lt. Swecker pulled Hurst over on the U.S. 460 Bypass, between the exits for downtown Christiansburg and Peppers Ferry Road. Lt. Swecker said he saw the driver swerve across the right side fog line several times and drive above the posted speed limit.

When Swecker approached the driver, according to the city's statement, he noticed the driver's eyes were red, and he smelled alcohol coming from within the vehicle.

Swecker got the driver's license and conducted a routine check of the license status, according to the city, and then explained to the driver, identified as Hurst, what he had seen in traffic. He asked Hurst to follow his pen with his eyes. He then asked Hurst to step out of the vehicle and perform field sobriety tests. Swecker administered those tests and a preliminary field breath test, which is a portable breath test used in the field to assist an officer in determining if a person is impaired.

According to the city, the results of the test conducted in the field are used as an investigative tool, but are not admissible as evidence in court. Hurst complied with the officer's request and performed all the tests.

Hurst's preliminary breath test registered a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .085, according to the city.

Swecker determined that by the time Hurst was taken to the magistrate's office for a formal breathalyzer test - which is the only admissible test in court - Hurst would be under the legal limit. Because of this, along with Hurst's overall performance during the field sobriety tests and coupled with the fact that Hurst had a sober companion in the vehicle who could drive him home, Swecker released Hurst without charging him.

Swecker was aware Hurst is a delegate, but neither Swecker nor Hurst mentioned that at any time during the encounter, according to the city's initial statement.

Hurst issued a statement on Wednesday apologizing for the situation.

The statement reads, “I am very sorry this happened and take full responsibility for exercising such poor judgment. This mistake is not something I take lightly. The work before us in the General Assembly this session is more important than ever before. I look forward to continued efforts to build a better 12th District and Commonwealth of Virginia.”

In an additional statement, posted to his Facebook page around 6:50 p.m. Wednesday, Hurst said, "It has been brought up that sitting members of the General Assembly cannot be charged with crimes while they are in session. While true, I don’t agree that I should be immune from prosecution when warranted. I never avoid responsibility and accept the consequences of my actions. I am not above the law."

Christiansburg Police have released dashcam video of Hurst being pulled over and going through sobriety tests. A 45-second portion revealing personal medical information about Hurst was edited from the video.