HELENA – The Montana Supreme Court has ordered a new trial in the case of a Helena man who was found guilty of misdemeanor charges after he used his truck and boat to stop a high-speed chase.
Four of the court’s seven members ruled this week that Helena Municipal Court improperly prevented Ron Parsons from using the state’s citizen’s arrest law to defend himself.
The case dates back to May 2016 when law enforcement officers were chasing a man on a motorcycle down Custer Avenue. When Parsons saw the pursuit behind him, he intentionally pulled his truck and boat trailer across the road, causing the man to crash.
City prosecutors argued Parsons had caused unnecessary risk, and they charged him with negligent endangerment and reckless driving in municipal court. In December 2016, a jury found him guilty on both charges.
Parsons appealed the decision, arguing that he was acting under the citizen’s arrest statute.
State law says a private person can use reasonable force to detain someone, “when there is probable cause to believe that the person is committing or has committed an offense and the existing circumstances require the person’s immediate arrest.”
Municipal court did not allow Parsons to bring up that law during the trial. His attorney argued that meant he didn’t have a chance to fully justify his actions.
The majority justices agreed. In his opinion, Justice Dirk Sandefur wrote that Parsons’ citizen’s arrest defense would have been an important context for jurors as they determined whether the prosecution proved its case.
“The jury could have thus further found reasonable doubt as to whether Parsons acted in negligent, willful, or wanton disregard of the safety of others as alleged by the State or, as he asserts, reasonably under the circumstances,” Sandefur wrote.
Sandefur was joined in his opinion by Justices Ingrid Gustafson and Laurie McKinnon, along with District Court Judge Luke Berger, who heard the case in place of Justice Jim Rice.
Justice Beth Baker wrote a dissenting opinion, saying she would have upheld the municipal court decision. She argued the citizen’s arrest law didn’t apply in this case because law enforcement was already “at the scene” and actively pursuing the suspect.
“No statute authorizes a private citizen to choose to involve himself in an active law enforcement action,” Baker wrote. “Such an interpretation invites additional risk, both to law enforcement and – as the facts of this case demonstrate – to the public.”
Baker’s dissent was joined by Chief Justice Mike McGrath and by District Court Judge Yvonne Laird, who sat in Justice Jim Shea’s place.
The First Judicial District Court in Helena had upheld the municipal court’s ruling. The Supreme Court reversed the lower court and sent Parsons’ case back for a new trial.
Parsons told MTN News Thursday he was pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision.
“It’s about time that they saw,” he said.
Helena City Attorney Thomas Jodoin said the case will go back to District Court before being returned to Helena Municipal Court. He said, once it is back in municipal court, his office will decide whether to refile charges against Parsons.
-Jonathon Ambarian reporting for MTN News