HELENA – A state Senate leader stopped by a Montana Highway Patrol trooper on suspicion of speeding had threatened to call the attorney general and argued he couldn’t be arrested because he was a lawmaker on his way to legislative business.
Republican Sen. Jason Ellsworth of Hamilton, the Senate president pro tempore for the 2021 session, faces misdemeanor charges of speeding through a construction zone or an alternative charge of reckless driving and obstructing a peace officer.
Ellsworth was stopped May 23 at about 10:20 p.m. The Montana Free Press first reported the charges Tuesday, and they were filed against the senator on May 26.
Ellsworth was traveling to Helena “after a long day dealing with a family medical issue,” said Kyle Schmauch, a spokesperson for Senate Republicans. “He was in a hurry to get to town and get some rest before running errands and participating in legislative business the next day.”
According to the complaint, the trooper was parked at a construction zone between Townsend and Helena where the speed is 55 mph (88 kph), when she saw a vehicle quickly approaching. Her radar recorded the car was traveling at 88 mph (142 kph).
After stopping the car, the trooper told Ellsworth how fast he was going and asked why he was in such hurry, court records said.
Ellsworth said he was headed to a legislative session in the morning and showed the trooper his legislative identification card.
Due to the officer’s uncertainty over the law as it applied to lawmakers, she was printing out a warning when she saw Ellsworth get out of his car and approach the officer, court records said.
He had pulled up the state Constitution on his phone to show the officer where it states that members of the legislature cannot be arrested while attending a legislative session or traveling to or returning from one, unless they are committing a felony “or a breach of peace,” the complaint said.
“You are also saying you are going in the middle of the night to a session that starts in the morning,” the trooper clarified.
“That’s right,” Ellsworth said.
The trooper asked Ellsworth six times to go back to his car, during an exchange in which he said: “If you want me to call the attorney general…” and the trooper replied, “Go ahead and call him. Back to your car now.”
“I would be happy to,” Ellsworth continued. “I suggest you call your boss.”
Attorney General Austin Knudsen oversees the Department of Justice, which includes the highway patrol.
“The Senator’s behavior was inappropriate,” Knudsen said in a statement. “The trooper’s handling of the situation is a testament to the professionalism of the Montana Highway Patrol.”
Further investigation found that Ellsworth is a member of the Legislative Council, which was meeting at 8:30 a.m. on May 24 in Helena, fewer than 30 miles (48 kilometers) away and about 10 hours after the time Ellsworth was stopped, court records said.
“Senator Ellsworth respects and appreciates that the trooper and the county attorney are public servants who are doing their jobs with this traffic citation,” Schmauch said. “Ellsworth attempted to call the trooper the day after he was pulled over to apologize if he came across as unprofessional, which was not his intent. He looks forward to resolving the matter and continuing to serve his constituents. ”
The trooper also learned that Ellsworth had been stopped on the interstate near Helena on Jan. 25. Ellsworth showed the trooper his legislative identification and said he was late for a meeting with Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte. The officer released Ellsworth without issuing a ticket, court records said.
Ellsworth’s initial court hearing is set for Aug. 3, Broadwater County Justice of the Peace Kirk Flynn said Tuesday.
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