ROANOKE, Va. – When Virginia Del. Chris Hurst was pulled over on suspicion of driving drunk on Sunday morning, despite having a blood alcohol concentration of .085%, he wasn’t arrested.
10 News took a closer look at an article in the Virginia Constitution that protects lawmakers while the General Assembly is in session.
Christiansburg police cited Section IV, Article 9 and in a statement, said: “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.”
The law isn’t necessarily a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it protects lawmakers from getting arrested during General Assembly sessions, unless it’s for a serious crime.
Under the law, legislators can be arrested for “treason, felony, or breach of the peace" during sessions, but they’re immune from misdemeanors like DUIs.
In a statement released Wednesday night, Del. Chris 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.”
In Virginia, intoxicated driving doesn’t become a felony charge until someone’s third offense within a 10-year span, or unless someone is hurt or killed.
Under that same immunity law, legislators also can’t be arrested under any civil process during sessions or 15 days before and after a session.
Political and legal experts say this immunity law in Virginia was made hundreds of years ago, and it’s designed to protect lawmakers from being targeted or intimidated by the Governor, officials or members of another political party.
“...To prevent a governor or some other official from intimidating, or even detaining, legislators who weren’t being cooperative, and could even prevent that delegate from making a crucial vote in Richmond," said 10 News Political Analyst Dr. Ed Lynch.
Police can still arrest someone for a suspected DUI even if their blood alcohol concentration is under the legal limit, depending on how the driver is acting.
“I know the public will be concerned with, ‘Well, if it were me, would I be provided the same opportunity as someone who has immunity?’ I’m not sure about that. That really is up to the officer’s discretion," said Dr. Tod Burke, criminal justice expert and former police officer.
Virginia is not alone: There are similar laws in other states that give legislators immunity, like West Virginia and Arizona. There are also protections for diplomats and members of U.S. Congress.