Legislative leader from Hamilton charged with traffic violations, obstructing officer

Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton

(Daily Montanan) Senate President Pro Tempore Jason Ellsworth was charged with three misdemeanors resulting from a May traffic stop in Broadwater County and will appear in court in August, according to charging documents shared with the Daily Montanan.

Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, was charged with speeding in a construction zone, reckless driving and obstructing a peace officer, according to the charging documents, which were first reported by the Montana Free Press Tuesday.

A state trooper clocked Ellsworth’s vehicle traveling 86 miles per hour in a 55-mile-per hour zone around 10:20 p.m., according to the charging documents. When pulled over, Ellsworth identified himself as a lawmaker and said he had stayed the night in Bozeman and was driving to Helena for a legislative meeting the next day, the complaint says.

The obstruction charge arose when Ellsworth got out of his car and approached the trooper as she was writing him a warning.

“Due to the officer’s uncertainty over applicable law affecting a legislator’s exemption from arrest, the officer decided to issue a warning for the speed,” the complaint says. “As she was printing out the warning, the officer observed Mr. Ellsworth get out of his vehicle and walk toward her.”

The trooper told Ellsworth he didn’t need to leave his car, but he nonetheless approached the patrol vehicle, said he needed to be released and presented a copy of the state Constitution on his phone, according to the charging documents.

The complaint says Ellsworth was likely referencing Article V of the Montana Constitution, which says lawmakers are “privileged from arrest during attendance at sessions of the legislature and in going to and returning therefrom” except in the case of felony charges. The legislative session ended about a month prior, though Ellsworth was scheduled to attend a meeting of the Legislative Council the next day.

Ellsworth argued with the trooper, said he could call the attorney general and suggested the patrolwoman call her boss, according to the charging documents, all while she was instructing him to return to his vehicle.

“The traffic stop was located less than 30 minutes from Helena, and occurred approximately 10 hours prior to the beginning of the Legislative meeting,” the charging documents state. “Trooper Gifford did not arrest Ellsworth and did not interfere in his ability to arrive on time for his meeting.”

A spokesman for the legislative Republican caucus said Ellsworth was traveling to Helena after dealing with a medical issue in the family.

“He was in a hurry to get to town and get some rest before running errands and participating in legislative business the next day,” said spokesman Kyle Schmauch. “Sen. Ellsworth respects and appreciates that the trooper and the county attorney are public servants who are doing their jobs with this traffic citation. Ellsworth attempted to call the trooper the day after he was pulled over to apologize if he came across as unprofessional, which was not his intent.”

The documents said that the trooper learned Ellsworth had previously been pulled over by a highway trooper outside of Helena in January. Ellsworth presented his legislative ID, said he was late to a meeting with Gov. Greg Gianforte and was released without charges at the time.