By Brian Maass
DENVER (CBS4)– An off-duty Denver police officer has lost two days pay after careening off the road, smashing through fences in a Lakewood neighborhood, then leaving the scene of a property damage accident before Lakewood police could arrive.
“I think any police officer knows they should remain on the scene. It’s common knowledge, yes,” said Lakewood Police spokesman Steve Davis of the accident involving off-duty Denver Police Officer Mark Miller.
According to police and witness reports obtained by CBS4, Miller and his wife had dinner at a Wheat Ridge restaurant last April and were headed home in separate cars. Miller’s wife said her husband had been drinking at dinner but she told police her husband had “nothing more than usual.”
As he drove home, Miller veered off of West Yale Avenue, over a curb and then plowed through 100 feet of backyard split rail fences and privacy fences before his Jeep eventually became wedged between a light pole and a fence post.
He caused about $5,500 in damage. Neighbors snapped cellphone pictures and said that even after Miller had driven down the sidewalk and his Jeep became stuck, he continued to gun the engine and spin his tires, attempting to move the car. At one point he told one witness that he must have fallen asleep behind the wheel.
He later said that he had dropped his cellphone and was fumbling around for it when he drove off the street, through juniper bushes and down the sidewalk.
Karen Steinhauser, Miller’s attorney, told CBS4, “I don’t think we can presume that because there was an accident someone must have been under the influence. At worst this is a careless driving case.”
Steinhauser told CBS4 that Miller had been using prescription allergy medications when he crashed.
Neighbor John Karamigios, who approached Miller’s Jeep, said the officer seemed “out of it” but did not smell any alcohol. Karamigios told Miller that Lakewood police had been called and suggested Miller could wait at Karamigios’ home until officers arrived.
But before police got to the scene, Miller left although he provided his name and phone number to Karamigios before taking off.
According to a Lakewood police report, Karamigios “said he told Mark to wait because the police had been called and within a few minutes, Mark simply left.”
“Anyone who has a driver’s license should stay on the scene if they are involved in an accident,” said Davis.
He said his department’s officers arrived at Miller’s home about an hour and a half after the accident. Officers say Miller’s eyes were watery, he was unsteady on his feet and he was slurring his words. He told police he didn’t remain at the scene of the accident because “he didn’t have to.”
One Lakewood police agent told Miller, “I believed he should probably know, at least better than the average motorist because he is a police officer, to remain at the scene of an accident, particularly an accident as significant and bizarre as this one.”
At times, Miller told police he was on his way home from work when he crashed even though his wife had said they were going home after dinner.
Lakewood police charged Miller with leaving the scene of an accident, careless driving and failure to have proof of insurance.
Davis says because Miller left the scene, and it took time to track him down, there was no possibility of pursuing a DUI case since Miller could have been drinking after he arrived home.
“Our folks felt strongly he had been drinking . When he had been drinking, we don’t know,” said Davis.
Two months after the incident, the Jefferson County district attorney agreed to a plea bargain with Miller allowing him to plead guilty to the careless driving charge but dropping the leaving the scene of an accident and insurance charges.
Pam Russell, a spokesperson for the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office told CBS4 the case was a hit and run.
“Lakewood PD was correct in filing the leaving the scene count,” said Russell. “While there are elements which, if met, would provide that someone could leave in a situation like this, but not all of those were met. In this case, the leaving the scene count was dismissed as part of the disposition. Considering he had one minor entry on his driver’s history and looking at the entirety of the case, we believe this was an appropriate disposition which would have been offered to any similarly situated defendant .“
Miller’s attorney argues the officer had no obligation to wait for police.
“He just didn’t feel like he had to stay until the police came. I think the statute is unclear when there is property damage of what you need to do. He did what he needed to do,” said Steinhauser.
When it came time for the Denver Police Department to discipline Miller, he was fined two days pay for the careless driving charge and neglecting his duty to report an accident. Miller agreed with the discipline which the department said was partly dictated by Miller’s lack of disciplinary history and his taking responsibility for what he did.
Denver Deputy Police Chief Matt Murray told CBS4,”There is considerable disagreement about whether that’s a hit and run. He left his information. Would a citizen be prosecuted for a hit-and-run in that case? I don’t think so.”
Murray also said “People can speculate and we have to stick to what we can prove in this case, that’s what we could prove. We have said it was wrong and we disciplined him on what we were able to discipline him on.”
Miller’s insurance company paid two homeowners about $5,500 for the destruction of their fences.