Former undersheriff asks court to dismiss charge against him; media requesting investigative file from CCSO theft cases

The attorney for former undersheriff John Stevens filed a motion last week asking the district court to dismiss the charge of misdemeanor theft and to terminate the remaining six months of his deferred sentence.

In July, Stevens signed a plea agreement, entering a plea of no contest and in exchange, the state amended the felony theft charge to a misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of not more than $500.

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The plea agreement included a one-year deferred sentence.

A no contest plea essentially means that a defendant is not admitting wrongdoing or disputing the charge.

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In the motion, Stevens’ attorney, Kenneth Olson, argues that Stevens has completed half the deferred sentence, complied with all the requirements and at the halfway point, state law allows the court to consider dismissing the charge and terminating the remainder of the sentence.

As of Tuesday, no hearing had been set on the motion in Cascade County district court.

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In the motion, Stevens’ attorney says the state attorney generals office did not object to the motion.

Stevens, a former undersheriff at the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office, had initially been charged with a felony count of theft for taking weapons from the CCSO when he retired.

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An investigation of “irregular purchases” at CCSO also resulted in a misdemeanor charge for taking weapons for former CCSO employee Raymond Hitchcock.

Last year, The Electric and other media outlets requested the investigative file from Cascade County.

According to multiple sources, a district court judge is currently reviewing the file to determine what information may be released.

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Once the cases were concluded in court, state law allows the county attorney’s office to petition the court to review such files and determine if the can be released.

In November, the Cascade County Attorney’s Office petitioned the court on behalf of the media outlets asking that the file be released.

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In the document, the county attorneys office does not object to the release of the Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation reports “subject to redaction of protect information as it pertains to completed criminal investigations.”

Once a requesting party makes an initial showing to the court that it’s authorized by law to receive the sought after material, “the burden then shifts to the state to demonstrate that the requested [information] should not be released because the rights of individual privacy outweigh the merits of public disclosure,” Deputy County Attorney Charity Yonker writes in the petition.

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In this case, Yonker writes, there is no ongoing investigation that will be negatively impacted by release of the completed investigation and redaction of information in the file can protect the demands of individual privacy that aren’t outweighed by the merits of public disclosure.

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“Further, the Montana Supreme Court has observed that ‘law enforcement officers occupy positions of great public trust…and…the public health, safety and welfare are closely tied to an honest police force. The conduct of our law enforcement officers is a sensitive matter so that if they engage in conduct resulting in discipline for misconduct in the line of duty, the public should know,” according to Yonker’s petition.

Past court decisions have held police officers to higher levels of public scrutiny due to the nature of their public trust.

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“Thus, as a former undersheriff in Cascade County, the investigation involving John Stevens is subject to a higher level of scrutiny compared to that of an ordinary individual, which weighs in favor of the public’s right to know over individual privacy concerns,” Yonkers wrote in the petition.

The Cascade County Attorney’s Office asked the court to review the file and determine if the rights to privacy do not outweigh the public’s right to know and release the investigative file, or edited version of the information as the court deems appropriate.

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In mid-November, Olson, Stevens’ attorney, filed an objection to the release of the investigative file on the grounds of his right to individual privacy. The objection was filed in the original criminal case and not attached to the county attorney’s petition file.

In the objection, Olson writes that “in this case the investigative file involves substantial allegations of wrongdoing which turned out to be without basis in fact and did not lead to charges against Mr. Stevens. It involves the names of innocent individuals who were wrongfully suspected of wrongdoing and who would be exposed to unfair public negativism should that information be disclosed. It would involved the rights of other individuals who have not been charged with crimes whose privacy rights would be invaded. The information sought to be released about Mr. Stevens, in his view, falsely accused him of felonious activities which turned out not to be supportable. Allegations were investigated by not charged. Information about those falsely based allegations, if released, would unfairly expose him to public ignominy.”

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In the objection, Olson writes that the release of the file would violate Stevens’ right to individual privacy for matters that were investigated but not charged and for which he was not convicted.

“The information is not information that causes his right to individual privacy to be outweighed by the public’s right to know,” Olson wrote. “It is information that will unfairly darken his reputation further and greatly harm his ability to go on with his life and support his family.”

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In a letter to the court, which is publicly available with the objection filed by Olson, Stevens writes that the release of the file would violate his personal privacy, and that of others who are named in the file.

“This case has pages and pages of slandering accusations regarding my employment with both the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office as well as the Cascade County Disaster and Emergency Services positions that I held. I still maintain that these account practices were all decided upon by then Sheriff Bob Edwards. However, Sheriff Edwards refused to cooperate and instead made a deal with the state that he would not face any charges. These allegations were not found to be true and were never brought forward as charges, however, this will continue to affect my opportunity to achieve gainful employment. I strongly feel that the sheriff mislead investigators as a form of political retaliation since I no longer supported him in office after his arrest in June of 2017,” Stevens wrote.

Stevens wrote that he accepted the plea agreement but maintains that then Sheriff Bob Edwards gifted those weapons to himself and Ray Hitchcock and others who were not interviewed during the investigation.

“If this case were to be completely transparent to the public, it would violate my human rights as Cascade County had terminated me from my Disaster and Emergency position due to these erroneous and unfounded allegations. This would also negatively jeopardize future employment as it would untruthfully portray that I have mal-intentions on the job. This is simply not the truth,” Stevens wrote.

Earlier this month, the Montana Supreme Court upheld a Yellowstone County district court decision ordering the City of Billings to pay attorneys fees to media organizations in Billings after those organizations took the city to court over the release of the names of police officers who were disciplined for having sex with a clerk while on duty or on city property.

The Billings Gazette reported that “the ruling pointed out that the District Court ‘relied heavily on well-established law regarding a law enforcement officers’ diminished expectation of privacy in matter involving the officers’ conduct.'”