Internal investigation finds Christiansburg officer didn't violate policies during Hurst traffic stop

Published: Feb. 21, 2020 at 10:34 AM EST
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The Christiansburg Police Department held a press conference Friday morning to release details of the internal investigation revolving around 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 the vehicle swerving across the right side fog-line 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 prelim 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.

“Those are difficult decisions, I’m not going to sit here and say they’re not tough," said Chief Mark Sisson. “We understand that not everyone will agree with Lt. Swecker’s decision to not arrest Delegate Hurst, but Lt. Swecker was on scene that night observing all of the relevant factors.”

The police chief said after an eye test and four field tests, Hurst was satisfactory on the majority of them, even though he blew over the legal limit in a breath test.

“All of our officers are highly trained in D.U.I. enforcement and detection and we have to trust them to know that they’re making the right judgement call at 2 a.m. when I’m asleep and you guys are asleep," Sisson said.

The police chief is confident he treated Hurst as he would anyone else.

“I firmly believe that whether it was Joe Smith that lives on Depot Street, whether it’s you, whether it’s me, whoever it would be I feel very confident that the outcome would have been the same," he said.

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 since January of 2019, 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 preliminary 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,” 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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