A suburban Denver police officer who admitted to drinking after he was found passed out in his patrol car will not be prosecuted for drunken driving because of a lack of evidence that the district attorney on Thursday blamed on police giving him special treatment.
In announcing his decision not to prosecute Officer Nate Meier, 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler said the police's decision to treat the March 29 incident as a medical case rather than a DUI investigation — despite some officers smelling alcohol — prevented him from having the evidence he needed to convince a jury to convict him. He said police actions did not amount to a cover up because evidence was not destroyed or hidden but he said their actions were “a couple of blocks" from one.
“I do think he beat the system. I just think it was part of the system that helped him do it," Brauchler said of his decision, which was first reported by KCNC-TV.
Tests done after Meier was taken to a hospital by ambulance showed he was significantly intoxicated with a blood alcohol level of 0.43, Brauchler said. Meier later told internal police investigators that he had been drinking vodka before driving.
However, since the blood tests were done for medical reasons and not as part of a criminal DUI investigation they are protected by medical privacy laws and could not be used at a trial, Brauchler said. The internal affairs admissions could also not be used under legal precedent barring the use of compelled statements from law enforcement officers during investigations by their departments, he said.
Brauchler said his decision not to prosecute Meier, who was demoted and suspended, had nothing to do with him being a police officer, pointing to 13 cases in which he has pursued drunken driving charges against law enforcement officers, including several from Aurora, since he took office in 2012. He also said he has experienced great cooperation from Aurora police — the largest police department in his district — in the past, and believes this case was an aberration.
Interim Aurora police Chief Vanessa Wilson said she understood Brauchler's frustration and said the case was not handled correctly.
However, she said the officers who responded did not try to cover up what happened, noting that their observations of smelling alcohol were recorded in reports, and that they were following the commands of the deputy chief in treating the case as a medical issue.
With the district attorney's investigation complete, Wilson said she will request an internal affairs investigation into the deputy chief's decisions.
Since taking over as leader of the department Jan. 1, Wilson said she has ordered that she be contacted whenever there are cases where police are suspected of using drugs or alcohol and for those cases to be immediately treated as criminal investigations so evidence can be collected in time. Once evidence is collected, she said those cases will then be passed on to an outside agency to continue the investigation.
Former U.S. attorney John Walsh is also conducting a review of the case at the request of city officials. The probe was announced in December and the findings will be made public.