The traffic stop captured on the state trooper’s dashboard camera in the early morning hours of May 24 appears routine: A car moves close to the center line of La. 25 and swerves slightly toward the shoulder, pulling over when the cruiser turns on its lights.
The driver, dressed in shorts, walks haltingly to the back of his vehicle, swaying a bit as the trooper questions him.
But what happened next was not routine. Trooper 1st Class Matthew Graham discovered that he had pulled over a fellow law enforcement official, Sgt. Sean Beavers, of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office.
Graham suspected impairment and smelled alcohol on the driver’s breath, according to a State Police spokesman. But instead of calling the stop in to Troop L, as required by State Police policy, he called a supervisor with the St. Tammany Sheriff’s Office and then turned off his dash-cam before deputies arrived.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, said the incident raises the question: Did the trooper give a pass to the off-duty officer?
Beavers was not given a breath-alcohol test. Another off-duty deputy drove him home.
And while Beavers was not issued a ticket, he is facing what Goyeneche described as a severe penalty: a 40-hour suspension without pay and a job reassignment that Goyeneche said means a cut in pay.
One of the responsibilities Beavers lost was overseeing the Louisiana Highway Safety Administration Program in St. Tammany.
As for Graham, after nearly three months and what State Police spokesman Nick Manale described as a thorough investigation, he was given a letter of reprimand on Aug. 25 for failing to call in the stop and for turning off the dash-cam, both policy infractions. “You offered no justifiable reason for either failure,” the letter said.
Manale said Graham has faced discipline in the past, although he could not provide specifics. He has also received several commendations, Manale said.
Beavers declined to comment, directing reporters to a Sheriff’s Office public information officer, George Bonnett.
Graham did not return a call seeking comment.
Shortly after the incident, the Sheriff’s Office published a post on its Facebook page saying that incorrect information was being spread on social media about a traffic stop involving an employee. The post said the employee had interacted in a professional and courteous manner with the trooper and that no arrest had been made.
But the Facebook posting, which has since been removed, did say an internal investigation had been launched and that the employee, who was not named, had been reassigned to administrative duties.
The internal Sheriff’s Office investigation began June 1 and was concluded June 23. According to the investigation report, Beavers admitted that he had consumed alcohol earlier in the evening; he said he had his last drink slightly after midnight. He was stopped at 2 a.m.
Beavers told investigators that he did not feel he was legally intoxicated, but he admitted he had a made a poor decision to drive. He blamed his improper driving on his use of a cellphone.
According to the report, six deputies came to the scene of the traffic stop, and Graham left after turning matters over to Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Daniel Chauvin, who determined that Beavers was not legally intoxicated.
It’s unclear how Chauvin — who also decided that Beavers should not drive — made that determination. Ultimately, Beavers was driven home in his own car by Deputy Christopher Phillips.
The report found that Beavers had violated employee conduct policy.
“Sgt. Beavers did not conduct himself while off duty in a manner as to reflect favorably on the agency,” the report concluded. “Sgt. Beavers’ conduct reflected discredit upon not only himself as a member of the (St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office) but also to the (office) itself.”
Goyeneche said a highway safety officer who had received a DWI would lose his job.
“The thing that really raises doubts about the trooper’s decision making was the severe penalty that was handed out by the Sheriff’s Office with respect to the sergeant,” Goyeneche said. “If, in fact, the sergeant wasn’t impaired, why did the Sheriff’s Office come drive the man home?”
Bonnett, the Sheriff’s Office spokesman, released a statement saying the investigation didn’t uncover evidence that Beavers had violated the law. However, it did find that his actions violated agency policy, including high expectations of employee behavior.
It’s impossible to know whether Beavers’ impairment reached the level of a criminal violation, Goyeneche said.
But he believes Beavers got preferential treatment because he was a cop.
“I think a normal civilian under the same set of factual circumstances would probably have been arrested and gone to jail,” he said.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.