Elinor Smith

HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) – Under Montana law, only civilian coroners can investigate when someone dies in police custody. But, most coroners in the state are also elected officials and peace officers – a Sheriff/Coroner combination. 

A bill introduced into the Montana Legislature on Friday would change that, allowing coroners who are also peace officers to determine the cause of death in cases in which inmates die while in custody or being taken into custody. 

Brian Thompson from the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association testified in support of Senate Bill 68 in a committee hearing Friday, saying it would address a state-wide coroner shortage.Thompson says there are only 15 civilian coroners in the state and most of them are in rural communities. 

“What we're asking to do is, for this bill to be passed with the amendments that are gonna be brought, to make it a little bit more flexible so that we can have coroner coverage when it's needed,” Thompson said. 

Maggie Bornstein with the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana opposed the bill, saying that having the inquest done by coroners who work outside the justice system creates transparency when someone dies in custody. 

“That is a devastating reality for a family. And we feel that the allowance further of peace officers to move forward with carrying out the inquest process is not fair to families,” Bornstein said.  

During debate of the bill, Sen. Andrea Olsen, D-Missoula,asked Jim Anderson, the Public Safety Chief of the Department of Corrections, if this bill would create an appearance of conflict of interest. 

“They're all under the same umbrella. They're all elected officials and, and under the county jurisdiction. So even elected, civilian corners are under the county government and elected by the individuals. Same with the sheriff's officers being appointed as corners. They’re elected individuals,” Anderson said. 

The committee did not take immediate action on the bill. 

Elinor Smith is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.