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Body camera footage shows February drunk-driving arrest of Sen. Charles Schwertner

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Body camera footage shows February drunk-driving arrest of Sen. Charles Schwertner

Sep 30, 2023 | 5:24 pm ET
By Patrick Svitek
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Body camera footage shows February drunk-driving arrest of Sen. Charles Schwertner
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State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown is shown in bodycam footage released by the Austin Police Department. (Austin Police Department)

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Newly released body camera footage shows state Sen. Charles Schwertner’s February arrest for suspicion of drunk driving after refusing to take a breathalyzer test. Travis County prosecutors dropped the charge in July, saying there was not enough evidence to secure a conviction.

The video was released to The Texas Tribune on Friday in response to a public records request. It shows Schwertner, a Georgetown Republican, being pulled over in the early morning hours of Feb. 7 in Austin. The officer tells Schwertner he was driving between two lanes, and Schwertner apologizes, saying he and his passenger were “changing channels and stuff.”

State Rep. Claudia Ordaz, D-El Paso, can be seen in the front passenger seat with Schwertner as he is being pulled over. In a statement, she said, “I had no involvement in this matter other than being a passenger at the time of this incident and was fully cooperative with authorities at all times. I regret this incident occurred, and in the future, I will use more caution to prevent this type of unfortunate circumstance.”

The video goes on to show Schwertner repeating he had not been drinking, performing field sobriety tests and being handcuffed. He was released from the Travis County jail later that day, telling reporters he was “deeply apologetic” and “made a mistake.”

Schwertner’s lawyer, Perry Minton, declined to answer questions about the video and instead provided a brief statement.

“This is the video the Travis County Attorney’s Office viewed when it rejected any charges against Senator Schwertner months ago,” Minton said. “It’s time to move on to newsworthy stories.”

The Tribune provided the video to both Schwertner’s and Ordaz’s offices shortly after it was released on Friday evening. Minton provided his statement Saturday morning, while Ordaz did not respond with a comment until just 1 minute before this story’s publication.

In the video, Schwertner tells the officer he was picking up Ordaz at the airport and they had gone out to dinner at Whataburger. Ordaz tells the officer they are parked at her place, and Schwertner confirms it is where she lives.

The officer asks if they have been drinking and both say no. The officer asks Schwertner to come out of the car, and once he does, the officer tells Schwertner he notices a “strong smell of alcohol” on his breath. The officer asks again if Schwertner had anything to drink, and Schwertner says no.

A little while later, the officer continues to ask Schwertner whether he has been drinking, at one point asking him to rate how drunk he is on a scale of zero to 10. Part of the audio of the exchange is missing, but Schwertner’s response is audible.

“I’m sober,” Schwertner says. “Zero.”

The officer proceeds to conduct field sobriety tests on Schwertner, during which his wife apparently arrives at the scene.

“My wife just showed up,” Schwertner says, explaining he was distracted while balancing on one foot.

They try to restart the exercise, but Schwertner is still distracted.

“Belinda. Belinda,” Schwertner says. “She’s an attorney.”

While a voice can be heard offscreen, the words are inaudible. It is unclear who exactly Schwertner was referring to as an attorney. Neither Belinda Schwertner nor Ordaz are listed as attorneys in either of their public profiles.

The officer and Schwertner resume the exercise, but Schwertner becomes impatient. He asks the officer if the length of time he has been balancing is “sufficient,” and the officer tells him that is not for him to decide.

“Officer, this is getting to be a interrogation,” Schwertner says.

The officer says all he is trying to do is get Schwertner to follow instructions for a “standardized field sobriety test.” Schwertner insists he has done everything the officer has asked him to do and tells the officer he is “acting inappropriately.”

Schwertner ultimately completes the test and he and the officer walk over closer to a police car, where a second officer assures Schwertner he is going through a “standardized thing” and not getting any unique treatment. A third officer presents Schwertner with what he calls a “preliminary breath test,” explains it detects alcohol and asks if he would like to take it. Schwertner says no and is handcuffed and told he is “under arrest for driving while intoxicated.”

The video goes on for about another half hour, showing Schwertner being placed in a police car, calmly interacting with officers and arriving at the jail.

At one point, Schwertner asks the first officer if he can sit in the front of the police car. The officer says he has to put Schwertner in the back due to policy. Schwertner gets in the back of the car and sighs.

“I’ve done so much for you guys,” Schwertner says.

The officer replies that he appreciates it but he is just doing his job. Schwertner says he understands.

While Schwertner is in the car, the arresting officer is approached by another officer.

“I need to call the watch commander because that’s a senator, a Texas state senator, and they’re in the legislative session right now,” the other officer says before adding in a reassuring tone: “You do everything right. Everybody’s treated the same.”

Schwertner was booked into the Travis County jail at 2:12 a.m. and charged with driving while intoxicated. He received a personal recognizance bond and was released from jail shortly after noon that day.

“I’m deeply sorry, apologetic to my citizens and my family,” Schwertner told reporters as he left the jail. “I made a mistake.”

The officer who arrested Schwertner wrote in an affidavit for probable cause that in addition to the smell of alcohol on his breath, Schwertner had “bloodshot, glassy, watery eyes, was confused, and had slurred speech patterns.” The officer also described Schwertner’s demeanor as “polite, sleepy, cooperative.”

Travis County Attorney Delia Garza announced July 18 that there was not enough evidence to continue with the case. She also said Schwertner “voluntarily submitted to alcohol counseling and alcohol monitoring with no violations.” Minton, Schwertner’s lawyer, said it was the “right decision based strictly on the evidence.”

After Schwertner’s arrest, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said there was “zero excuse” for drunk driving, especially “by a member of the legislature whose conduct should be held to a higher standard.” Patrick added he would withhold further comment until the “final outcome of this issue in court.” Patrick has since not commented on the situation.

Schwertner chairs the Senate Business and Commerce Committee and has served in the upper chamber since 2013. He represents Senate District 5, a Republican-friendly district that covers the north Austin suburbs and spreads east to include College Station.

Schwertner, 53, previously had a personal controversy in 2018, when he was accused of sending sexually explicit photos of his genitals to a graduate student at the University of Texas. He denied the allegations, saying that someone else sent the messages using his LinkedIn account and another privacy phone messaging app that belongs to him.

A university investigation did not clear Schwertner of wrongdoing but said it could not prove Schwertner sent the texts. Investigators said Schwertner was uncooperative.

After the allegation, Schwertner voluntarily gave up his chairmanship of the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee.