Commissioner fined in ‘personal little tea party
Mesa County Commissioner Craig Meis paid a $78 fine after his conviction Thursday in a court trial stemming from a $50 boating ticket.
A two-man, one-woman jury found Meis guilty of a petty offense, permitting a person under age 16 to operate a motor boat, in a three-hour trial in which the commissioner acted as his own attorney.
Meis on June 18 was issued a $50 ticket at Highline Lake State Park by Colorado State Parks officer Craig Johnson. Meis’ 14-year-old son, Ben, had been observed by the officer at various points that day riding on a personal watercraft.
According to records obtained by The Daily Sentinel, Meis protested the ticket in an e-mail sent June 23 to the executive director of the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees Colorado State Parks.
“This had nothing to do with public safety,” Meis said Thursday, calling the officer’s ticket “frivolous.”
He described his decision to take the case to trial as, “my own personal little tea party.”
Commissioner Janet Rowland sat in as the verdict was read in County Court Judge Bruce Raaum’s courtroom. The jury needed roughly 20 minutes of deliberation before returning a guilty verdict.
Meis had pleaded not guilty and Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger filed a conflict notice in the case, which eventually was assigned to the Seventh Judicial District Attorney’s Office for special prosecution.
Prosecutor Sherri Price made the trip from Montrose Thursday to try Meis’ case, which brought out 20 residents who arrived around 8:30 a.m. at the Mesa County Justice Center for jury duty.
‘He said he was 14’
Raaum granted a motion from Price before the start of the trial, barring Meis from presenting a defense suggesting Johnson had discretion to issue a warning, as opposed to a ticket.
The judge said Meis’ argument wasn’t relevant to the questions of law at issue in the trial: Whether Meis allowed his 14-year-old son to operate the watercraft in violation of law.
“That’s a big part of my defense,” Meis protested to the judge.
“Is this something that could have been brought up before today?” he appealed to Raaum.
Johnson testified he observed Meis’ son on the watercraft throughout the day June 18 at Highline Lake. Johnson testified the boy was still in the water, near the west-end boat ramp, when he contacted Meis.
Meis volunteered to the officer that his son was 14.
On cross-examination by Meis, Johnson said Meis’ son appeared to be operating the watercraft in a safe manner, before Meis questioned the officer’s work June 18:
“How did you validate my son’s age?” Meis asked.
“By asking you,” the officer replied.
“So if I would have said he’s 18, you would have believed that as well?” Meis asked.
Price objected to the question, which was sustained by Raaum.
In closing remarks to the jury, Meis again suggested the officer hadn’t verified his son’s age on June 18, while claiming a “lack of training from the state on this issue when this officer doesn’t know the difference between a Jet Ski and WaveRunner.”
Price again objected.
“The defendant is testifying,” she told Raaum.
Meis’ closing was cut short by the judge.
Meis involved DNR director
Copying eight local or state officials — including Hautzinger and Colorado State Parks Director Dean Winstanley — Meis sent an e-mail five days after the incident, blasting the officer’s issuance of a ticket.
Meis’ e-mail, obtained under the Colorado Open Records Act, was sent to Mike King, director of the Department of Natural Resources.
“Frankly,” Meis wrote, “I don’t have any expectation that you may be able to do anything about this but am hopeful that it will help me vent my frustration and possibly help with allowing law enforcement in the future to exercise some level of discretion based on circumstances when considering future engagements with the public.”
While saying he “took responsibility” for allowing his son to ride the watercraft and acknowledged Johnson was professional in his conduct, Meis took aim at the law and the officer’s actions.
“I’m tired of others trying to protect me and lumping me into the category of those that are not responsible,” Meis wrote. “This is where I would hope the discretion of the officer would have come into play as he can take these circumstances into consideration rather than punishing all the same for the irresponsible actions of a few that created the law in the first place to the detriment of the responsible majority.”
In a brief response, King wrote “my guess” was the officer’s decision to issue a ticket was within a range of reasonable responses.
“As you acknowledge — there is not much that I can do on this particular case,” the DNR director replied.
King had been issued a subpoena to testify in Meis’ case as a result of the e-mail. King was released from the subpoena shortly before the trial.
“I took it at face value,” King said Thursday, when interviewed about Meis’ e-mail. “When Craig vents, Craig vents. I didn’t read it as anything more than that.”