Missoula County receives formal notice as defendant in state lawsuit over illegal Reserve Street camp
The Missoula County Attorney's office on Thursday issued formal notice to county leaders of a lawsuit filed last week by the Montana Department of Transportation related to illegal camping under the Reserve Street bridge.
Deputy County Attorney Brian West said the lawsuit names Missoula County as a defendant in the case, along with “John Does one through 100.”
The lawsuit includes five counts including forcible detainer, trespass, a claim for public and private nuisance, a request for injunction and a declaratory action.
“By and large, what MDT is trying to secure is a court order where they can have the sheriff's office assist them in clearing out the property under the Reserve Street bridge,” West said. “This is more or less the same thing as an eviction lawsuit through the forcible detainer and common-law trespass claims.”
In addition, West said, MDT is seeking court authorization to remove any personal effects left on the island. In the past many years, volunteer groups have been left to clean out tons of debris left behind by illegal campers including trash, plastics, furniture, human waste and drug paraphernalia.
In 2017 alone, independent contractors removed nearly 20 tons of trash from the site.
“There's a request to the court to authorize MDT to remove any personal effects or anything left on the island as a means to try and reduce the amount of garbage, refuse and litter that can be swept into the river as the runoff season comes,” West said.
He added that the county attorney's office will defend MDT's claim.
“We do have the capacity to do so. We'll file any appropriate pleadings in the next week in response to the lawsuit,” he said, saying there was no solid time frame. “MDT has duties and obligations to serve notice on the individuals who are currently on their property.”
Illegal camping under the Reserve Street bridge has been an issue for years. But more recently, it has become more contentious as neighborhood groups increased pressure on public officials to close the camp down, citing concerns over trash, vandalism and safety. MDT also has upped the pressure after several fires were started under the bridge.
Last year, the city and county, along with other homeless advocacy groups, launched Operation Shelter, which laid out a plan to provide alternatives to the campsite. One such camp opened on the south side of the city in 2020 and, in January, an authorized outdoor camp opened off Reserve Street, not far from the illegal camp under the bridge.
When directing funding to the new Reserve Street camp, county officials pledged to close to the illegal camp. They maintained that stance on Thursday.
“This gives the sheriff's office some legal protection when they take those legal actions,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “We want to make sure there's compassionate enforcement, and this gives us the protection we need – we being the sheriffs office – to do that work.”
West said the allegations brought by MDT in the lawsuit are directed at the individual campers who are breaking the law. The county was brought in as a necessary party given the sheriff's office role in carrying out the evictions and trespassing charges.
Without the public's investment in the new sanctioned homeless camp, local jurisdictions would not be able to issue notice on those within the illegal camp.
“Some of the decisions that have been handed down by the Ninth Circuit have by and large prevented law enforcement agencies and communities from criminalizing individuals camping on public properties,” West said. “The provision of the other (sanctioned) camp site is a key component of what MDT is trying to do with their property.”