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Trial greenlighted for Missoula trucker charged in fatal Lewis and Clark County crash

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The Montana Supreme Court has greenlighted the trial for a Missoula truck driver who was charged with negligent homicide in connection with a fatal crash in Lewis and Clark County.

Justin Thomas Miller was charged after an axle from his trailer went through the windshield of a vehicle driven by 23-year-old Juan Kuka of Great Falls in August 2020, killing the man instantly. 

According to court documents, Kuka was eastbound on U.S. Highway 200 on August 11, 2020. Just west of the junction with U.S. Highway 287, which is known as Bowman's Corner, an axle came off the trailer being pulled by Miller's Ford F-350 and went through the windshield of Kuka's Ford Fusion. 

Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Tom Kruse investigated the crash and Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton determined that Kuka died from blunt force trauma. Both drivers were wearing seat belts, and alcohol, drugs and speed were not factors.

Court documents state that five days before the crash, during a delivery from Caldwell, Idaho to Great Falls, Miller had stopped by the Motor Carrier Services office in Butte. MCS Officer Brad Billington examined Miller's trailer and put it out of service on Aug. 6 after finding the axle positioning parts were defective and/or missing. Billington also found that the axle suspensions connecting rods were loose with just hand pressure. Billington found the trailer was not safe and could not be moved until the parts were replaced or repaired, and he informed Miller of this.

According to prosecutors, Miller did not replace or have these parts fixed, negligently leading to the death of Kuka. Trooper Kruse contacted Jeff Steeger, Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program manager, who recalled a male who had called him during the afternoon of Aug. 6 stating he had been stopped by MCS and placed out of service. Steeger said the male caller asked if he could remove the portions of the trailer's suspension that were defective or worn out and continue using the trailer.

Steeger advised him that Officer Billington had put him out of service for a reason and he needed to follow the instructions given.

On Aug. 21, Kruse executed a search warrant at the defendant's home in Missoula and found the missing trailer suspension parts that had been removed from the trailer and were missing at the time of the Aug. 11 crash.

Miller, who operates under the name Miller Transport LLC, was making a delivery from Missoula to Great Falls on the day of the crash. This was approximately five days after the inspection that put him out of service.

On Oct. 7, 2020, Miller was convicted of a violation of Motor Carrier Services rules under 49 CFR Part 396 in Missoula County Justice Court. He entered a plea of no contest. The Missoula court attested this violation occurred on Aug. 11, 2020.

By Nov. 24, 2020, Lewis and Clark County prosecutors had filed a negligent homicide charge against Miller. The defendant asked the First Judicial District Court to dismiss the case under the rules of double jeopardy, which prevent the accused from being charged with for same crime twice. 

Lewis and Clark County prosecutors argued that this was "a situation of different agencies investigating and prosecuting different offenses" and noted that the "same date does not constitute double jeopardy." Prosecutors alleged that the negligent homicide violation had also occurred on Aug. 11, 2020.

Judge Christopher Abbott, who is assigned to the case, agreed with prosecutors and denied Miller's claims of double jeopardy on Feb. 25, 2021.

Miller appealed to the Montana Supreme Court, which issued its decision on Sept. 28. Court documents state that "Miller has not persuaded us that the district court has made a mistake of law and is causing a gross injustice." Furthermore, the court determined that "the Montana Constitution does not bar the negligent homicide charges against him, and the case may proceed to trial."

A jury trial for Miller is set for Jan. 31, 2022. Subpoenas have been issued for Billington, Kruse and several others to make appearances during the trial.

Judge Abbot has received several letters from members of Kuka's family and friends supporting the prosecution of Miller. Kuka's father, Kokko Kuka, sent Abbott a letter in February.

"I am requesting that Justin Miller's record be scared by a felony for his negligence in the untimely death of my oldest son. The department of transportation ticketed and relinquished the use of his trailer until the proper professionals fixed the altercation and determined its safety. Justin deliberately disregarded his legal obligation and the safety of anyone using the Montana highway system. Due to his negligence, Juan's family and friends must suffer a lifetime without him," said Kokko, in his letter.

"Juan Cabrales Kuka was 23 years old traveling home from a weekend he spent with his girlfriend of three years. He was attending the Salish-Kootenai college as a promising young science student. He was an older brother to four siblings, all of whom loved and looked up to Juanito. He was a smiling face to so many, a genuinely good soul with a promising future. I often told Juanito he was truthful to a fault. I had adored him for 23 very short years and the day he was killed in a preventable accident I knew he would not want vengeance, simply justice and the prevention of other preventable deaths."

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