Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, listens during debate on a collection of amendments to House Bill 701 during the 67th Montana Legislature. Credit: Austin Amestoy / UM Legislative News Service

Montana Senate President Pro Tempore Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, has been charged with three misdemeanors, including obstruction of a peace officer, after he was pulled over for speeding in a construction zone in May. The officer reported a verbal altercation with Ellsworth in which the senator claimed he was exempt from arrest because he was a lawmaker traveling for legislative business.

The charges were filed by Broadwater County Attorney Cory Swanson on May 26. Ellsworth is scheduled to make an initial appearance in court on Aug. 3. 

The traffic stop and charges have not previously been reported. 

The senator did not respond to multiple requests for comment before publication. An attorney representing Ellsworth also did not respond to a request for comment on behalf of his client.

In a statement provided after publication, a spokesman for Senate Republicans said the incident occurred when Ellsworth was on his way to Helena “after a long day dealing with a family medical issue.” 

“He was in a hurry to get to town and get some rest before running errands and participating in legislative business the next day,” Kyle Schmauch said in an emailed statement.

Schmauch also said Ellsworth attempted to call the state trooper who pulled him over with the intent of apologizing if his conduct “came across as unprofessional.” Schmauch said Ellsworth left a message for the officer but did not hear back.

“Senator Ellsworth respects and appreciates that the trooper and the county attorney are public servants who are doing their jobs with this traffic citation,” the statement continued. “He looks forward to resolving the matter and continuing to serve his constituents.”

According to the charging document, Ellsworth was pulled over at 10:20 p.m. on Sunday, May 23, after a Montana Highway Patrol officer’s radar clocked him driving 88 mph in a 55 mph zone. No workers were present at the time.

The highway where the stop occurred runs between Townsend and Helena. When stopped, Ellsworth told the state trooper he had spent the night in Bozeman and was driving to a Legislative Council meeting scheduled for the following morning in Helena. Ellsworth displayed his legislative identification to the officer.

The charging document says the officer returned to her vehicle to run a check on Ellsworths’ vehicle, which had plates issued from a car dealership, and print him a warning for excessive speed. As described in the complaint, Ellsworth then got out of his vehicle and approached the officer’s car against the trooper’s instructions, and was “mumbling something that could not be understood.”

Indicating that he had pulled up the Montana Constitution on his phone, Ellsworth then told the officer that he needed to be released, citing a provision that exempts legislators from arrest “during attendance at sessions of the Legislature and in going to and returning therefrom.” 

The 67th Legislature adjourned April 29, roughly a month before Ellsworth was pulled over.

The officer clarified that Ellsworth was in transit to Helena, less than half an hour from where the stop occurred, for a meeting that began the following morning. Ellsworth agreed and continued to paraphrase the relevant section of the Constitution, even as the officer instructed him to step back and return to his car. 

“The Senator’s behavior was inappropriate. The trooper’s handling of the situation is a testament to the professionalism of the Montana Highway Patrol.”

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen

According to a transcript of the exchange included in the charging document, Ellsworth then suggested he would call Attorney General Austin Knudsen. The Department of Justice, run by the attorney general, oversees the Montana Highway Patrol.

“If you want me to call the Attorney General —” Ellsworth said.

“Go ahead and call him,” the officer responded. “Back to your car now.”

“I would be happy to,” Ellsworth said. “I suggest you call your boss.” 

In an emailed statement on Tuesday, Knudsen criticized Ellsworth’s conduct.

“The Senator’s behavior was inappropriate,” Knudsen said. “The trooper’s handling of the situation is a testament to the professionalism of the Montana Highway Patrol.”

Ellsworth was permitted to leave the stop without being arrested. Archived video records from the Legislature show that he appeared at the scheduled Legislative Council meeting the following morning.

The complaint states that Ellsworth had been pulled over by another MHP trooper at 8:20 a.m. on Jan. 25, 2021, on an interstate near Helena. The charging document does not say what initiated the stop. The trooper involved in that incident recorded that Ellsworth was let go without receiving a ticket after he showed his legislative ID and said he was late for a meeting with Gov. Greg Gianforte.

Contacted by phone, the officer involved in the May 23 traffic stop declined to say whether Ellsworth was asked to take a breathalyzer test. The charging document does not indicate any smell or appearance of alcohol in the vehicle. 

The county attorney’s filing does not indicate whether dashcam footage or audio recordings from the event exist and will be included as evidence in the case. The Montana Highway Patrol directed requests for audio and video footage to the court system, citing the ongoing case.

Contacted by MTFP, County Attorney Swanson declined to comment on the case. The Clerk of Court for Broadwater County confirmed that an initially scheduled July 6 court appearance for Ellsworth was rescheduled for the following month.

The charges carry penalties ranging up to $500 dollars and up to six months in jail, with obstruction of a peace officer ranking the most severe of the three misdemeanors. Ellsworth was first elected to serve in the Legislature in 2019. He was selected for a leadership position by his Republican colleagues last November.

This story was updated July 20, 2021, to include a statement from Senate Republican spokesman Kyle Schmauch.

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.