Legislative Immunity May Have Shielded Lawmaker Who Blew Over .08 On DUI Stop
Christiansburg, VA – A Virginia legislator suspected of drunk driving was let off with a warning despite having a blood-alcohol level that tested above the legal limit.
At approximately 2 a.m. on Sunday, a Christiansburg Police Lieutenant Stephen Swecker spotted a vehicle speeding and swerving over the fog line multiple times while driving along the U.S. 460 Bypass, WDBJ reported.
Lt. Swecker stopped the vehicle and identified the driver as Virginia State Delegate Chris Hurst.
Hurst’s eyes were red and an odor associated with an alcoholic beverage was emanating from the vehicle, police said.
The 32-year-old Democratic legislator was cooperative and submitted to field sobriety tests, to include a preliminary breath test used to help determine whether he was driving under the influence of alcohol, WDBJ reported.
The test, an investigative tool that is not admissible in court in Virginia, registered a blood-alcohol content reading of .085, which is above the legal limit of .08, police said.
Lt. Swecker ultimately determined that Hurst’s blood-alcohol level would likely have fallen below the legal limit in the time it would have taken to transport him to the magistrate’s office to submit to testing that would be admissible in court, WDBJ reported.
Hurst’s passenger tested below the legal limit, so the delegate was let off with a warning and allowed to leave the scene.
Lt. Swecker later notified his division commander about the stop, and the two officers briefly discussed the possibility that Hurst may be immune from prosecution while the General Assembly is in session.
The Christiansburg Police Department (CPD) reiterated the issue of immunity in a statement to WSLS.
“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,” the department said.
Hurst did not mention his role as a delegate during the stop, but Lt. Swecker was aware of the potential immunity law, according to the CPD.
“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,” the statement read. “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.”
According to legal and political experts, Virginia’s immunity law was established hundreds of years ago in order to prevent lawmakers from being intimidated or targeted by members of another political party or by government officials, WSLS reported.
Hurst addressed the law in a statement he issued on Wednesday.
The delegate said that he made a “grave mistake” by consuming alcohol at a party and then driving, but noted that he didn’t think he was drunk when he got behind the wheel.
“At the time I never believed that my competence to drive was compromised,” Hurst wrote.
But after being pulled over and submitting to a series of field sobriety tests, he realized that he shouldn’t have been in control of a vehicle, he said.
“My blood alcohol content was shown to be .085%. That is over the legal limit and I should not have been drinking and driving,” Hurst continued. “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.”
Hurst said he displayed “poor judgement” and acknowledged that his actions could have cost someone their life.
“I never avoid responsibility and accept the consequences of my actions. I am not above the law,” he said. “This experience has humbled me in a profound way… To those I have let down, I am deeply sorry. I will spend the remainder of my time in office working diligently to advocate for our community and regain any trust that I have lost.”