TOWNSEND — A top GOP state senator pleaded guilty Monday to obstructing a peace officer, stemming from a May 23 highway traffic stop, where he argued that he was exempt from being retained because of his status as a legislator.
“I got out of my car, to have a conversation with the officer; certainly that was not appropriate in any way, shape or form,” Sen. Jason Ellsworth told Broadwater County Justice of the Peace Kirk Flynn.
Ellsworth also said he wanted to apologize to the Highway Patrol officer who stopped him, saying she was “doing her duty as a public servant.”
Flynn fined Ellsworth $350 for the misdemeanor and $85 in court costs. He also gave Ellsworth a one-year deferred imposition of sentence, which means if Ellsworth follows the law during that time, the charge will be dropped from his record.
Broadwater County Attorney Cory Swanson said he agreed to the sentence, if Ellsworth pleaded guilty, and to drop the charge that Ellsworth had been speeding 88 mph in a 55-mph construction zone on U.S. Highway 12-287. The original charges said Ellsworth could be cited for reckless driving as an alternative.
Ellsworth, the Senate’s president pro-tem, was driving from Bozeman to Helena May 23 when state trooper MacKenzie Gifford clocked his vehicle at 88 mph in a construction zone between Townsend and Helena, at 10: 20 p.m.
Charged filed three days later 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 Gifford told him several times to return to his vehicle, the charges said. He eventually went back to his car.
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.
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’s regular session ended April 29. Ellsworth said he was driving to Helena for an interim legislative committee meeting on May 24.
In an interview with MTN News on Friday, Ellsworth said on May 23 he’d a “long, difficult day, on a personal level,” dealing with a medical issue in Bozeman.
“I’m not making excuses for my actions, and would never do that,” he said. “I’m taking full responsibility for my actions . … I was never avoiding, in any way, shape or form, a ticket. I need to be clear on that.”
He said he wants to recognize patrol officer Gifford for her service to the state, and that what he did “certainly won’t happen again.”