RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – A Virginia senator aims to change state law giving elected officials immunity from arrest during legislative sessions, after a fellow state lawmaker was released despite having a blood-alcohol level over the legal limit during a traffic stop.
Delegate Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, was pulled over by Christiansburg police early Sunday morning after his vehicle was seen swerving between lanes. According to a statement by the Christiansburg Police Department, Hurst was given a sobriety and breathalyzer test and had a blood-alcohol level of .085. The legal limit in Virginia is .08.
But considering the lawmaker’s performance in the field sobriety test, coupled with a sober driver in the car, the officer let him go with a warning.
The police department says the officer did not recognize Hurst, nor did Hurst mention his status as an elected official. But even if the officer had decided to haul him to jail, a section of Virginia Constitution forbids delegates and senators from being arrested during the annual legislative session.
“This provision of the state constitution makes it highly unlikely that Hurst could have prosecuted in court even if he had been arrested,” the police department said. “The officer weighed all of the factors and made a judgment call, as is done each and every time an officer decides whether or not to make an arrest.”
In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Hurst apologized for his behavior and asked his constituents for forgiveness.
“While I knew the dangers of drinking and driving ahead of time, I displayed poor judgment and made a mistake,” he wrote, but he also made mention of the constitutional provision.
“I don’t agree that I should be immune from prosecution when warranted,” Hurst added.
To fix this loophole, Senator Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, offered a constitutional amendment to address the immunity from arrest granted to public officials.
“Virginians elect their legislators expecting them to be responsible and accountable in both their public and private lives,” Reeves said in a Facebook post Thursday announcing the new legislative effort. “As leaders and role models, we must conduct ourselves ethically and with transparency.”
The fight to amend the state constitution requires many steps and eventually a vote from the public, but it has to pass the Legislature first.
Long-time Virginia politico Ben Tribbett warned against rolling back immunity. In a tweet, he opined removing the law could make way for a tied chamber as local police departments issue warrants to block legislation they don’t like.
“Legislative immunity only lasts during sessions then the person can be charged for something that occurred during session,” Tribbett said.
The immunity protection certainly hasn’t slowed the flow of criminal charges brought against Virginia’s elected officials.
Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment, R-Williamsburg, took to the full chamber to apologize for a DUI charge in 2001. He was found to have a blood-alcohol level of .10 despite having helped pass legislation to lower the limit to .08. Reports from the time say he was charged but make no mention of the immunity protection.
More recently, Senator Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, faced a litany of legal troubles including a conviction for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. A delegate at the time, he resigned but ran in the special election held for his seat. He won and with approval from a judge, was allowed to leave jail to serve at the General Assembly during the day.
Last year, Morrissey ran for his old Senate seat and won. He has since married the woman for whom he faced jail time.
But Hurst’s incident has highlighted the issue of immunity for legislators in a way it hadn’t before, and Reeves is hopefully his bill will make it through the legislative process before going before voters to make the final call.
“As a lifelong public servant, I have always sought to be worthy of the public’s trust,” Reeves wrote. “My intent in offering this constitutional amendment is to restore and maintain the public’s trust in their elected leaders.”
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