Commission upholds firing of Denver police officer who drove 143 mph while drunk

Panel had ordered Derrick Saunders' reinstatement

DENVERS - The Civil Service Commission on Wednesday upheld the firing of a Denver police officer who was convicted of recklessly driving 143 mph in a 55 mph zone while impaired by alcohol.

The commission's ruling overturned a May 2012 decision by a three-member independent panel that, after hearing former officer Derrick Saunders' appeal, ordered his reinstatement and reduced his punishment to a 42-day suspension.

Manager of Safety Alex J. Martinez appealed the reinstatement of the officer to the commission.

Saunders ultimately lost his job over his conduct on the night of June 17, 2010. He and a friend had been playing pool and watching basketball at a local bar. Saunders had three to five alcoholic drinks.

As they left the bar, the two men agreed Saunders was the "soberest person to drive home," according to the commission's decision.

A Colorado State Patrol trooper stopped Saunders for speeding 143 mph in a 55 mph zone on a two-lane road in Arapahoe County.

The trooper saw signs that Saunders was intoxicated and the off-duty officer admitted he'd been drinking. His breath-test showed he had a .089 blood-alcohol content -- above the .08 threshold for a driving under the influence violation, the decision said.

Saunders later pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of driving while ability impaired and reckless driving and was sentenced to five days in jail, fined $300 and ordered to perform 100 hours of community service, according to court records.

In firing Saunders in December 2012, Martinez said his reckless conduct was a Category F offense, the most serious violation an officer can commit.

Martinez wrote the June incident showed "a serious lack of character" related to being a police officer and "a willful and wanton disregard" for police department values.

"The extraordinary high speed alone is stunning. The fact that you drove at this dangerous speed while your ability to drive was impaired by alcohol is shocking. In addition, you were driving at night and with a passenger in the car," Martinez wrote.

In overturning Martinez's termination order, the hearing panel said normally an officer convicted of DWAI is considered a Category D offense, which warrants a suspension -- not termination. The panel also said the safety manager had improperly considered Saunders' speed as a factor in his decision.

But the commission on Wednesday ruled that Martinez got it right and firing Saunders was "justified under the factors of this case."

The driving conviction wasn't the first time the officer had gotten in trouble with the law -- and embarrassed his department.

In May 2009, Saunders was accused of pointing a gun at a McDonald's employee in Aurora. The employee said Saunders, an officer assigned to Denver International Airport, grew impatient when his order wasn't prepared fast enough. He was in the drive-thru with another off-duty officer when he pulled the gun on them, according to the McDonald's workers.

Saunders denied pointing the gun and a jury cleared Saunders of felony menacing and weapons charges in April 2010.

Saunders was hired as Denver police officer in 2007.

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