District attorney rules Jasper, Tennessee, officer’s use of force was lawful

Screenshot of livestreamed news conference / From left, Jasper Mayor Jason Turner, City Attorney Mark Raines and Police Chief Billy Mason discuss footage from an Aug. 5 traffic stop at a news conference Thursday.

A district attorney's review of a Jasper, Tennessee, police officer's actions during an Aug. 5 traffic stop found the use of force was lawful and within Police Department policy, according to a statement issued Friday.

"It is our conclusion that the use of force utilized by the officers was lawful and in accordance with the policies and procedures of the Jasper Police Department," 12th Judicial District Attorney General Courtney C. Lynch said Friday in a news release. "The presence of what appeared to be a firearm similar to the weapons used by SWAT teams gave the officers cause to ask Mr. Hrynecwicz to step out of the vehicle."

The 12th Judicial District consists of Bledsoe, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Sequatchie and Rhea counties.

Samuel Hrynecwicz — the passenger in the vehicle stopped by Jasper Police Officer Justin Graham for allegedly running a stop sign and almost causing a collision — appeared to be intoxicated, and Graham saw what he identified as a firearm in the back seat. The gun was later found to be an airsoft gun, Jasper City Attorney Mark Raines said during a news conference Thursday. A video taken by the driver spread on social media following the incident.

(READ MORE: Lawsuits against East Ridge cops allege excessive force and false charges)

Hrynecwicz was charged with resisting arrest and two counts of assaulting a police officer in the incident, Raines said Thursday.

Body camera footage from the stop showed the officer asking a man in the passenger seat for his name and identification, then raising his voice and asking him to get out of the car when he does not identify himself. Later in the video, Hrynecwicz said he was drunk and had been getting a ride to Waffle House.

Graham then began repeatedly asking Hrynecwicz to get out of the car. When Hrynecwicz asked if he did anything wrong, Graham repeated the command and told him he had a right to ask him to step out of the car because he was involved in a traffic stop. The officer then began pulling the passenger's leg, according to the footage.

Hrynecwicz still did not get out, video showed, and Graham appeared to reach across him and undo his seat belt. He and other officers who joined the stop eventually pulled Hrynecwicz out of the car and put him face down on the ground while they handcuffed him, according to video shown at the conference.

According to Lynch's release, criminal investigators in her office and several assistant district attorneys reviewed body cam footage, the police report and interviewed Graham.

The presence of what looked like a police-style firearm and what appeared to be an intoxicated passenger prompted Graham to order Hrynecwicz out of the car for the safety of all on the scene, but he refused, Lynch said.

"The officer utilized pepper spray in an effort to get Mr. Hrynecwicz out of the car," Lynch said. "Some of the spray got in the officer's eyes, causing some impairment of his vision. The officer attempted to call for backup, but his portable radio did not get out. He returned to his patrol unit, called for backup and proceeded back to the vehicle containing Mr. Hrynecwicz. At this time, Officer Graham attempted to use the tactic of brachial stun, which is an open-handed blow to the neck, which would temporarily stun the subject. In the course of attempting to execute the brachial stun, Mr. Hrynecwicz was struck in the face."

(READ MORE: Prisoner transport van carjacked at gunpoint Monday leads Marion County deputies on high-speed chase on I-24)

Ambulance personnel checked Hrynecwicz out and cleared him for transport to jail, she said.

"Officer Graham, after Mr. Hrynecwicz was handcuffed, retrieved the weapon and discovered that it was an air rifle," she said.

During Thursday's news conference, Jasper Police Chief Billy Mason told reporters he believed Graham followed procedures mandated by Jasper police and state law enforcement standards.

"We have the right to ask you to get out — doesn't mean you've done anything wrong," Mason said during Thursday's conference. "Just because you get out of the car with us doesn't mean you're going to jail."

Contact Ben Benton at [email protected] or 423-757-6569.