COP DUI ON DUTY, NO CHARGES FILED
In the last few days, a news story broke about an Aurora Police officer who was found passed out drunk behind the wheel of his unmarked patrol car while on duty in the spring of 2019. The officer was not charged with any crime, nor was he fired. This is a clear case of police officers looking the other way to protect a fellow officer, and it is outrageous.
Let’s do a deeper dive into the facts of the case. On March 29, two civilians called 911 to report a man slumped unconscious behind the wheel of his car, which was in the middle of a busy street. The car was running, in gear, and the driver had his foot on the brake. The man, later identified as Aurora Police officer Nate Meier, was in uniform wearing his badge, and was armed with his pistol and a Tazer, and was in his unmarked police unit. Members of the Aurora Police Department (his colleagues) and paramedics knocked on the window and door, but Meier never acknowledged them. Paramedics then had to break his car window in order to assist Meier. Several of the officers on scene smelled alcohol as they were attending to Meier. There is body cam footage of the incident here. You can hear the officers indicating that “he was a little intoxicated.” His blood alcohol level at the hospital was a .450; 9 times over the legal limit of .05.
The Agency Response
Deputy Chief Paul O’Keefe, who happens to be assuming the position of Interim Aurora Police Chief In Janurary, 2020, was the ranking officer on scene. Despite the overwhelming evidence that Meier was driving drunk on duty, O’Keefe, in his report, stated, “my observations of Agt. Meier led me to question if this was in fact alcohol intoxication or some other medical episode, as his physical demeanor was not what I thought was consistent with alcohol intoxication; it appeared more medical in nature.” As the primary official on scene, he made the determination to not investigate or charge Meier with a DUI, nor did he require the taking of the blood test (the previously mentioned result was from Meier’s hospital records, not the result of an official law enforcement test). Meier later admitted to internal affairs that he was drinking vodka from a bottle in the middle of his shift. He had no medical conditions which contributed to this incident.
The current police chief, Nick Metz, has defended his agency’s decisions to not charge Meier, or to fire him. He has suggested that the media is sensationalizing this story.
Was There Probable Cause Here?
As criminal defense attorneys, we find this case infuriating because we clearly have aggravated police conduct on the part of Meier that amounts to several crimes, and then making matters much worse, a blatant cover up by his own police department. The police are tasked with arresting someone if there is probable cause to arrest. Probable cause is generally defined as a reasonable belief that a person has committed or is committing a crime. Applying it to Meier, this guy is not just a little tipsy- he was drunk to the point of being comatose. He is found on duty, armed, in his police vehicle, blocking traffic on a busy street with the car in gear and running. The officers smell alcohol, and his unconscious status is further evidence that he was drunk. He was so wasted they had to break his window in order to deal with him. To suggest there was not probable cause for an arrest for DUI and Prohibited Use of a Weapon (being drunk and in possession a firearm) is laughable. It is telling that they didn’t even try to conduct a DUI investigation. In nearly every criminal case, it is common for police to turn over every stone imaginable to try to get probable cause to arrest. In this case they literally did no investigation whatsoever. It’s quite obvious what happened here. Meier’s fellow boys in blue gave him a free pass, and that pass was defended by the highest ranking officers in his department.
The Impact of This Injustice
More to the point- we have clients who are arrested for DUI routinely on less aggravated facts than these. Even more, we routinely have innocent clients who are charged with crimes they didn’t commit based on far less evidence than existed in this case. We can guarantee that if an average Joe Client was called in on these facts he would have been arrested, charged and prosecuted. These clients deserve to know why they face charges and penalties and license revocations and jail and probation and urine tests while this officer doesn’t even get charged. We frankly don’t even know how the Aurora Police Department can continue investigating DUI cases with any credibility in light of how poorly they handled this investigation. If they can’t be trusted to investigate their own officer with facts this egregious, how can we as members of the public entrust them to do right by the rest of us? It is simply not fair. Meier should have been charged, and the criminal justice system should have determined whether he was having a medical emergency, or whether he was actually driving under the influence.
The real problem that this case has created is an erosion of trust that exists between citizens and those who police them. These cops made a clear statement to the Aurora community: Our cops are above the law, and we won’t hold them accountable when they mess up. Perhaps an independent investigation by a third party agency should hold APD accountable, because let’s face it- the cover up is always worse than the crime.