Court upholds video release of Republican Senate President Jason Ellsworth's 2021 traffic stop
The Montana Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a District Court decision to release the dashcam video of Republican Senate President Jason Ellsworth's 2021 traffic stop requested by Lee Newspaper's state news bureau.
The investigative file sought by the Montana State News Bureau was gathered after a May 2021 traffic stop in which Ellsworth was cited with obstructing a peace officer for failing to abide by a Montana Highway Patrol trooper's orders to remain at his vehicle.
Ellsworth had, according to court filings, been pulled over for speeding in a construction zone and argued during the traffic stop the trooper should release him because he was en route to legislative business in Helena the following day. The trooper warned Ellsworth at least eight times to remain at his vehicle with little effect; court documents say Ellsworth invoked the Montana Attorney General, the highest ranking official in the Department of Justice, in an effort to be let go.
In August 2021 Ellsworth pleaded guilty to obstructing a peace officer in an agreement with prosecutors that saw the two other misdemeanors, reckless driving and speeding, dismissed from this case in Broadwater County Justice Court. Ellsworth received a one-year deferred sentence for the charge and $435 in fines. During the hearing, Ellsworth apologized to the trooper involved and said his conduct was "completely inappropriate."
At the time, Ellsworth held the high rank of Senate Pro Tempore in the state Legislature's upper chamber. Following his re-election in 2022, Ellsworth was elected Senate President of the 2023 Legislature by his peers.
Shortly after his guilty plea, the Montana State News Bureau requested from Broadwater County Attorney's Office the investigative file from Ellsworth's case. County Attorney Cory Swanson petitioned the District Court in January 2022 to approve the release of confidential criminal justice information. Through Missoula attorney David McLean, Ellsworth opposed the release of the investigative file, contending the materials should not be released until his deferred sentence was completed. The Montana State News Bureau was represented by Bozeman attorney Jeff Tierney.
Two months after the filing, District Court Judge Kathy Seeley disagreed with Ellsworth's argument and found disclosure of the records to be in the public interest. Additionally, an individual privacy argument was unreasonable because Ellsworth had used his position as a senator in the conduct that led to the obstruction charge, she wrote.
Seeley concluded some information in the file was not relevant to the charges at hand and ordered those materials be withheld, and any social security numbers, driver's license numbers and dates of birth be redacted. She ordered Broadwater County to release the remaining investigative file to the news outlet and any other interested parties.
Ellsworth appealed the ruling to the Montana Supreme Court, which on Tuesday upheld Seeley's order in a 5-0 opinion authored by Justice Jim Rice.
Through a GOP spokesperson, Ellsworth declined to comment on the ruling Wednesday.
The investigative file is expected to be released to the Montana State News Bureau in the coming days.
Capitol bureau reporter seaborn Larson has worked for Lee newspapers since 2018. His past work includes local crime and courts reporting at the Missoulian and Great Falls Tribune, and daily news reporting at the daily Inter Lake in Kalispell.