published Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

East Ridge fires officer after guilty plea in hit-run

An East Ridge police officer was fired Monday after he pleaded guilty earlier that morning to leaving the scene of an accident.

Sean Merriman, 29, who worked for the department for nearly five years, pleaded to the misdemeanor in exchange for judicial diversion in Hamilton County General Sessions Judge Christie Mahn Sell's courtroom. Under diversion, he must pay court costs and, at the end of 30 days, the incident will be expunged from his record.

"I'll accept judicial diversion if you don't get into trouble," Sell told Merriman.

Judicial diversion is for first-time offenders and allows them to have their record expunged if they meet certain conditions.

When reached by phone Monday afternoon, Merriman declined to comment.

Merriman wrecked his 2004 Jeep Cherokee while driving to his Middle Valley home the night of April 30. He took out a mailbox, flower bed and collided with a parked 1996 Chevrolet S10 pickup on Blue Spruce Drive.

He continued home and officers found his wrecked Jeep. Merriman admitted to being behind the wheel, but blood was never drawn from him to determine whether he was over the legal limit for alcohol, said Hamilton County Sheriff's Office Investigator Brian Lockhart. Investigators did not interview Merriman until the following day.

When they knocked at his door, he did not answer, even though they knocked loud enough to wake his neighbors, according to authorities. Merriman told Lockhart he wasn't drinking, yet he told East Ridge authorities he was drinking some time prior to the crash, according to a statement released by Police Chief Eddie Phillips.

"All people make mistakes at times. Nobody's perfect. However, when you're a police officer, if you enforce the law, you must reasonably uphold the law," said Tim Gobble, East Ridge city manager. "The police department and management felt like it warranted dismissal."

Merriman had a clean record as an officer until this incident, Gobble said. At the time of his firing, he had two other incidents that were the subject of an internal investigation for potential policy violations stemming from the incident.

Martha Gray, 54, who owns the truck that Merriman hit, brought a folder full of photographs to court Monday, planning to show the judge images of the crumpled truck bed. She never had the chance. A district attorney was never assigned to the case because it was a minor traffic case.

"That's glass all over my driveway," said Gray, pointing to the debris in the photographs. "And I understand the insurance is paying for it, I really do. But I don't understand how he can walk away. ... I just don't feel like he was treated like I would have been treated."

Gray said she must replace the truck after an insurance payout. Even though she is his neighbor, Merriman has not spoken to her family since the crash, she said.

"Mr. Merriman has to drive by our house every time he goes home. He has never stopped and admitted he hit the truck or has he said he was sorry for the accident. We had to wait for a police report before we could get his insurance information," she said.

When Merriman and his defense attorney, Jonathan Turner, were approached for comment, Turner declined to issue a statement.

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