AURORA | Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler on Thursday announced he will not pursue charges against an Aurora police officer found drunk and unconscious in a marked patrol car last spring due to case law that largely prevents him from presenting crucial evidence in court.
Brauchler said that while his office considered charges of DUI, prohibited use of weapons, reckless endangerment and official misconduct, prosecutors would be unlikely to convict the officer owing to several factors, including police investigators’ failure to test the officer’s blood for alcohol.
“Given the evidence that I have right now, I don’t think I have enough,” Brauchler said. “I don’t think I could convince a jury, and it would be wrong to simply charge someone and take them to court just to do it … that’s not ethical. I can’t be doing that to people whether they’re in uniform or not.”
Aurora City Manager Jim Twombly responded later in the day.
“We appreciate District Attorney Brauchler’s review and agree with his assessment: We got it wrong,” Twombly said in a statement. “There were questionable decisions made at the scene that failed our residents, failed our many hard-working police officers, and failed our city.”
He added that change is coming and already underway.
“Under the leadership of Interim Chief of Police Vanessa Wilson, we are already implementing new policies to help the residents of Aurora and our police officers feel that our city and our leadership are headed in the right direction,” Twombly stated.
In response to the incident, Wilson said she’s revamped the department’s substance abuse policy to require police to immediately forward incidents involving the suspected use of drugs or alcohol by officers to criminal investigators.
“We need to make sure that we look at things criminally first and then we look at it internally,” she said of officer-involved incidents where drugs or alcohol are suspected.
For nearly an hour Thursday, Brauchler detailed how Aurora police mishandled their own investigation after first responders found Officer Nate Meier passed out in his city-owned Ford Taurus parked in the middle of East Mississippi Avenue the afternoon of March 29.
Nearly a dozen police, fire and emergency medical personnel responded to the area after a pair of citizens called 911 to report that a person was passed out in their car near the entrance of Buckley Air Force Base.
Despite several responding officers reporting the odor of alcohol emanating from Meier’s person, a DUI investigation was never initiated. And because no officers immediately reported initially smelling liquor around Meier’s cruiser, EMTs and ambulance personnel suspected Meier was having a stroke or may have been exposed to opioids, Brauchler said.
In body-worn camera footage of the incident, Officer Eugene Vandyk can be heard remarking to another officer arriving on the scene that Meier “is a little intoxicated.”
Meier later admitted to drinking vodka while on duty and having a blood-alcohol content of 0.43, five times the legal limit, according to police internal affairs documents. The blood test was conducted after Meier was transported to a local hospital.
However, because Meier reported his blood-alcohol level as part of the internal affairs process, the blood test would be inadmissible in his criminal case due to existing case law that protects information cops involuntarily release, Brauchler said.
Had police conducted their own blood test before Meier was taken to the hospital, the results would have been admissible at trial, according to Brauchler. But that never occurred.
“It is our opinion that there was probable cause to seek a sample of blood from Meier,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Sugioka wrote in a synopsis of the incident. “Had anyone from APD called us, as they routinely do, to discuss whether probable cause existed, we would have told them we believed it did. No such call was made.”
After being demoted and temporarily suspended without pay, Meier remains on the police force.
Brauchler said police initiated the process of obtaining a blood sample from Meier, but the action was nixed for an unspecified reason.
“A DUI officer is dispatched by Aurora to go to the hospital, but is waved off and told, ‘go home. Go back to the road. Go do something else. There’s nothing to do here,’” Brauchler said.
Prosecutors also scolded police for failing to later search Meier’s cruiser, an action that would have not required a search warrant due to its status as a city-owned vehicle. A water bottle containing clear liquid found in the front of the car was neither seized nor tested.
“It presumably could be water, but in a case where we suspected that someone was driving drunk it would not be uncommon or unusual for us to seize the bottle and test the contents,” Brauchler said.
The incident involving Meier was first reported by CBS4 Dec. 10.
“I’m frustrated, one, that it happened and, two, that I don’t get to know about it until the media reports on it,” Brauchler said Thursday.
Wilson said she understands Brauchler’s frustration.
“He has a right to be frustrated, and the community has a right to be frustrated,” she said. “We did it wrong, and that caused (Brauchler) to not be able to do the job that he was elected to do, which is to hold people accountable for criminal acts within the Arapahoe County jurisdiction. I get that frustration.”
Though Brauchler said he would not characterize the police handling of the incident as a cover-up, he criticized the department’s apparent ambivalence.
“I think this became an ignorance is bliss moment,” Brauchler said. “I think this became, ‘We don’t want to know. We don’t want to get evidence that might show what we suspect.’ I don’t think that’s a cover-up, but it’s a couple blocks from it.”
Deputy Chief Paul O’Keefe, who was among the first people to respond to the scene last March, announced plans to retire from the department about two weeks CBS4 aired its initial report on the ordeal. O’Keefe was slated to become the interim police chief following former chief Nick Metz’s retirement at the end of last year, but removed his name from consideration as interim chief late on Christmas Eve.
Though O’Keefe was originally expected to retire next month, he announced his plans to retire on Feb. 7 following Brauchler’s announcement.
Wilson said she’s initiated another internal affairs investigation into O’Keefe’s decisions surrounding the Meier fiasco, though O’Keefe could decline to be interviewed following his retirement tomorrow.
“I think some questions need to be answered,” she said.
Brauchler insisted that the incident involving Meier was an anomaly in an otherwise reputable police force.
“Absent some other revelation, this to me feels like a one-off,” he said. “This is just not my relationship with Aurora. This isn’t my experience with Aurora. They have been to me so accessible, so proactive in getting me information about when officers engage in misconduct, that this caught me by surprise.”
Brauchler underscored that he has pursued 13 DUI cases against law enforcement officers, including eight that resulted in guilty pleas, since he has been in office.
Brauchler’s office has prosecuted two other Aurora officers found guilty of DUI in the past month.
Still, he suggested that police handled Meier’s case differently because of his status as a cop.
“(The) bottom line is: If one of us had been in that car and not Officer Nate Meier, you ask me do I think it would have been treated differently? I do,” he said.
Twombly didn’t dodge the criticism.
“This incident falls far short of the standards of accountability and integrity we expect of all city employees and has jeopardized our strong relationship with our residents. But that relationship is not irrevocably broken,” Twombly said in his statement. “That’s why I commissioned former U.S. Attorney John Walsh to conduct an independent review on this matter regarding the management, policies and procedures involved. We are eager to see the report and the recommendations he will make.”