HELENA — A top GOP state senator has been charged with obstructing a peace officer and other violations after a highway traffic stop, accused of trying to avoid arrest because of his status as a legislator.
Broadwater County authorities filed three misdemeanor charges in late May against Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, after a Highway Patrol officer stopped him for driving 88 mph, at night, in a construction zone where the speed limit was 55 mph. The stop occurred on U.S. Highway 287 south of Townsend.
In addition to the obstructing charge, he was cited for speeding in a construction zone and reckless driving. Ellsworth is scheduled to appear Aug. 3 in Justice Court in Townsend on the charges.
The charges said Ellsworth got out of his vehicle after the stop and approached the officer’s car, held up what he said was a copy of the state constitution and tried to say he was exempt from arrest because he was on his way to a legislative meeting.
Ellsworth “refused to comply with repeated orders from a Montana Highway Patrol officer,” when she told him several times to return to his vehicle, the charges said.
The traffic stop occurred at about 10:20 p.m. on Sunday, May 23. Ellsworth said he was driving from Bozeman to Helena to attend a legislative committee meeting the following Monday.
The full Legislature was not in session at the time.
Ellsworth, president pro-tem of the state Senate, declined Wednesday to talk to MTN News about the incident.
Montana Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, told MTN News he wouldn't comment while the case is pending before Broadwater County.
Kyle Schmauch, a spokesman for the state Senate Republican majority, said Ellsworth had been traveling from Bozeman to Helena after dealing with a “family medical issue,” and was in a hurry to get to Helena to get some rest and run some errands before attending the Legislative Council meeting the next day.
Ellsworth tried to call the Highway Patrol officer the following day to apologize “if he came across as unprofessional, which was not his intent,” Schmauch said.
“Sen. Ellsworth respects and appreciates that the trooper and the county attorney are public servants who are doing their jobs with this traffic citation,” he added.
The charging documents also said as the officer repeatedly told Ellsworth to return to his vehicle, Ellsworth said “If you want me to call the attorney general … I would be happy to. I suggest you call your boss.”
The officer told Ellsworth to “go ahead and call him” and to get back to his car.
The attorney general is head of the Department of Justice, which oversees the Highway Patrol.
Attorney General Austin Knudsen said Tuesday that Ellsworth’s “behavior was inappropriate.”
“The trooper’s handling of the situation is a testament to the professionalism of the Montana Highway Patrol,” Knudsen said in a statement.
The charging documents also noted that Ellsworth had been stopped Jan. 25 by an MHP officer on Interstate 15 near Helena, where he showed the patrolman his legislative ID and said he was late for a meeting with Gov. Greg Gianforte. Ellsworth was released without getting a ticket, the documents said.
Article V, Section 8 of the state constitution says state legislators are “privileged from arrest during attendance at sessions of the legislature and in going and returning therefrom,” unless they’re apprehended during the commission of “a felony or a breach of the peace.”
The Legislature was in regular session in January.
The charges from the May 23 traffic stop said the Patrol officer initially had decided to issue a warning to Ellsworth, because she was uncertain about the applicable law exempting legislators from arrest. But as she was printing out the warning, Ellsworth got out of his car and walked toward her, prompting her to get out of her vehicle and tell him several times to return to his vehicle, the charges said.