Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton (left), appears in court Aug. 2 to plead guilty to a charge stemming from a May 23 traffic stop. Also pictured are Ellsworth's attorney, David McLean (middle) and Broadwater County Attorney Cory Swanson (right).

TOWNSEND — Montana State Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, pleaded guilty Monday to obstructing a peace officer during a traffic stop in May on a highway east of Helena. The second-term lawmaker apologized for exiting his vehicle during the stop but not for any other conduct, including his demand to be released because of his status as a legislator. 

“Certainly that was not appropriate in any way shape or form,” Ellsworth said in comments before the judge Monday about his decision to exit the vehicle, adding that the Montana Highway Patrol officer was “doing her duty as a civil servant.”

Two additional charges filed by Broadwater County Attorney Cory Swanson were dropped in exchange for Ellsworth’s plea. They were reckless driving and speeding in a construction zone. Ellsworth agreed to pay a $350 fine and $85 in court fees, and received a one-year deferred sentence.

In the original charging document, first reported by Montana Free Press in July, Ellsworth was accused of driving 88 mph in a 55 mph construction zone between Townsend and Helena after 10:00 p.m., on May 23.

According to the complaint, Ellsworth repeatedly tried to convince Trooper Mackenzie Gifford to let him go, saying that he was driving to Helena for a Legislative Council meeting scheduled for the following morning. He referenced and repeatedly paraphrased a provision in the Montana Constitution that prohibits lawmakers from being arrested on their way to or from a legislative session. At the time Ellsworth was stopped, the 67th Legislature had been adjourned for approximately a month.

Gifford attested to a seemingly heated exchange with Ellsworth wherein he also suggested that he and Gifford should put in a call to Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, a former Republican lawmaker who now oversees the highway patrol.

“If you want me to call the attorney general —” Ellsworth said, according to a transcript of their conversation included in the charging document. 

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

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

Ellsworth declined to provide further comment after his hearing Monday when asked about his conduct, particularly his invocation of the attorney general.

There was no discussion Monday about another incident involving Ellsworth that was referenced in the charging document. In January, Ellsworth was reportedly pulled over shortly after 8:00 a.m., on an interstate outside of Helena but was released with a warning after he told the officer he was late for a meeting with Gov. Greg Gianforte. 

A records request filed with Gianforte’s office confirmed that Ellsworth was scheduled to meet with the governor that day, roughly six hours after he was stopped by the highway patrol.

Audio and video recordings of both incidents were not available through a public records request filed with the Department of Justice in July because they had been given to the Broadwater County Attorney’s office for use in the ongoing legal proceeding. Swanson did not introduce them as part of evidence during the hearing Monday.

Ellsworth agreed to pay his fines to the court Monday. Broadwater County Justice of the Peace Kirk Flynn told Ellsworth that if he followed the law for the next year the misdemeanor conviction could be removed from his record.

Mara covers Montana’s social welfare, criminal justice and legal systems. She also tracks policy and social issues that affect LGBTQ+ people. Prior to joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked at Slate and WNYC, where she focused on radio and podcasts. She got her start in audio journalism as an intern at Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 3, and follow her on Twitter.