KINGSPORT, TN (WJHL) – When Tennessee Highway Patrol troopers let an off-duty Kingsport police officer drive home in December 2015 after a field sobriety test it wasn’t the first time. Instead, THP made a similar decision involving the same man several months prior.
As we reported Thursday, a Kingsport Police Department internal investigation concluded the off-duty officer was in impaired on the December night troopers let him drive home.
However, THP Col. Tracy Trott disputes that finding. He said the evidence shows the man was not drunk and insists his troopers handled the traffic stop perfectly.
KPD’s internal review marked the second time last year that an outside agency took action following a THP investigation involving former Kingsport police officer Matt Stewart.
Just three months before that traffic stop, a Sullivan County jury found Stewart not guilty of driving under the influence, stemming from another situation in early 2015 in connection to a crash at a restaurant.
“You work for the police department, right?” the investigating trooper asked Stewart the night of the crash, according to dash cam video and audio.
In that highly publicized case, it took the trooper more than two hours to get to the hospital to give Stewart a field sobriety test, which he passed.
“Mr. Stewart, you definitely have had something to drink, but I do not think that you are impaired enough for me to place you under arrest for DUI,” the trooper said. “Hopefully, in the future it won’t happen.”
Sullivan County District Attorney Barry Staubus secured a grand injury indictment in that case months after the trooper’s decision. He based his evidence on observations made by EMS personnel who responded to the February crash.
“I opened up an investigation because of the delay between the incident and the field sobriety test being administered,” Staubus said. “They showed up and they were late in getting there, but it wasn’t any fault of theirs’. It was worthy of investigation and once the grand jury felt there was enough proof we had an obligation to move forward. I felt like I did the right thing. It was the right thing to do.”
In the end, a jury acquitted Stewart on the charge of DUI. However, jurors did find him guilty of failure to exercise due care. He had to pay a $50 fine as a result.
“I’ve never seen a DA do that before in my life,” Col. Trott said of Staubus’ decision to pursue the DUI case. “Of course the jury agreed with the trooper’s determination and found him not guilty.”
Col. Trott questions the district attorney’s actions in that unfounded DUI case and is adamant DUI enforcement remains his top priority. He says it’s an agenda that doesn’t offer any favors to anyone, including fellow officers.
“We’re going to protect the public at all costs when it comes to drunk driving,” Col. Trott said. “We have to treat them the same, because if you don’t some drunk driver is going to go down the road and kill somebody and you’re going to be responsible.”
Stewart resigned in December after his second THP run-in and amid his department’s internal investigation. Just nine days later, he secured a job with the Gate City Police Department where he remains today.
“Matthew Stewart is employed as a Police Officer with us at the Gate City Police Department,” Chief Scott Fink told us in a statement. “His date of hire is December 23, 2015.”
According to Chief Fink, the department recently named Stewart Officer of the Month.
We’ve emailed Stewart and passed along our number to try and get his side of the story multiple times, but have not heard back. We’ve also called and emailed Chief Fink multiple times to see if he’d like to say anything on Stewart’s behalf, but have not heard back from him about that request.
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