MISSOULA — The Missoula County attorney is asking a federal judge to decide if the U.S. Department of Justice has the authority to investigate his office.
In 2012, the DOJ announced it was opening an investigation into the way the city, University of Montana campus police and the prosecutor’s office handled sexual assault cases.
The law enforcement agencies reached settlement agreements with the DOJ last year calling for more training and policy changes. However, County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg has refused to cooperate with the DOJ investigation, saying the agency does not have jurisdiction over his office.
The DOJ has said its authority to investigate the county attorney’s office comes from the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which gives the federal government the authority to sue local governments over the conduct of their law enforcement officers. Van Valkenburg argues that prosecutors aren’t law enforcement officers.
On Tuesday, the county filed a motion in U.S. District Court in Missoula seeking a declaratory judgment.
Local prosecutors are governed by the state attorney general, not the Justice Department, attorney Natasha Jones wrote in the motion. “The DOJ is exceeding and abusing its statutory and constitutional authority.”
In December, the U.S. attorney’s office in Montana offered to settle the case if the prosecutor’s office added staffers, including a victim advocate, internal investigators and designated some prosecutors to pursue sexual assault cases. Van Valkenburg said his office is properly handling cases and the DOJ’s suggestions would cost county taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
The DOJ said if Van Valkenburg did not comply with the demand that he turn over records involving sexual assault cases, it would seek a court order compelling his office to comply.
Last month, Van Valkenburg gave the DOJ two weeks to sign an agreement that said the county attorney’s office would assist city and campus police in meeting their obligations under their separate agreements with the DOJ.
The DOJ did not respond.
During the investigation, lawyers from the Justice Department looked at more than 350 sexual assault reports Missoula police received between January 2008 and May 2012 and found that, in some cases, the women were made to believe the assault was their fault while in others, police failed to obtain timely, credible statements from suspects or witnesses. The investigation also found that the county attorney’s office generally did not provide adequate explanation for not pursuing charges and that police at times didn’t determine or adequately convey to the county attorney’s office if a woman might not have been able to consent to sex because she was incapacitated by alcohol or drugs.
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