County exploring options for splitting coroner from CCSO

Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter has asked the County Commission to split the offices of sheriff and coroner, which are currently combined.

Under state law, the county coroner is a publicly elected office, but can be consolidated with certain other elected offices if a county chooses to follow a process spelled out in the law.

Cascade County opted to combine the offices about 20 years ago, Slaughter said, but he’s asking commissioners to split them again since “there’s a fundamental conflict of the office of the sheriff and the coroner being combined.”

Slaughter met with commissioners earlier this month about the split and this week, Commissioner Joe Briggs said county officials are reviewing the legal process to split the offices and the potential financial implications to the county.

Initially, Slaughter said the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office could absorb the Disaster and Emergency Services division if the coroner became a separate office, but the County Commission decided at the end of last week to keep DES as its own office. This week, the county posted the DES manager job that was vacated by Ron Scott earlier this month.

DES coordinator resigns; county considering folding office into CCSO

Slaughter said coroner’s role is to investigate the cause and manner of death, not determine who is responsible, which is the domain of the sheriff’s office.

Coroners in Montana are also responsible for identifying deceased persons; providing decent disposal of unclaimed decedents and unclaimed parts of bodies believed to be human; and notification of next of kin and other administrative responsibilities; among other duties.

Slaughter said one of his concerns with deputy sheriffs also serving as coroners is that under state law, coroners don’t need search warrants to lawfully enter any place “in which the coroner has probable cause to believe that a dead human body or evidence of the circumstances of a death that requires investigation may be found. If refused entry, a coroner who is investigating a death pursuant to the coroner’s authority may apply to a judge authorized to issue search warrants for a warrant to enter the premises and to search for and seize evidence of the cause of a death, including a dead human body.”

Coroners can enter, take photos, seize medication and more, while law enforcement typically needs a search warrant to enter and search a premises.

So if a deputy is performing a search as the coroner and finds evidence related to a criminal investigation, there could be legal issues related to lawful searches, Slaughter said.

Another concern, Slaughter said, is the question of whether a coroner and law enforcement are at odds. For example, he said, if a deputy says a death was the result of a self-inflicted gunshot, but the deputy acting as coroner rules the death a homicide.

If they’re at odds with the finding, ultimately as the sheriff, I pick which ever one I want to believe,” Slaughter said. “I have total absolute power over death investigations.”

Slaughter said that’s not how he operates at the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office and works with the county attorneys office in death investigations but with the consolidated office, “it would be really easy to miss something.”

Slaughter said he also worries about deputies who have to investigate the death and the crime and come to a conclusion entirely on their own.

“I think it’s dangerous, I really do,” Slaughter said.

In the case of a death that occurs during a law enforcement response, such as an officer involved shooting, when someone is being transported to jail, or dies in jail, the death investigation cannot be conducted by someone who also serves as a peace officer, according to Montana law.

With the combined office in Cascade County and most other counties in Montana, it’s getting harder to find a civilian coroner to handle those investigations. Typically, local officials call the civilian coroner in Petroleum County to handle those cases.

“What happens if we can’t get anybody? We just sit there with a body in what would be our worst day, an in custody, high profile death,” Slaughter said. “Basically, on your worst day, with an officer involved shooting or a death in the jail, and you can’t get a coroner, you literally can’t touch that body. What are we going to do?”

Lewis and Clark and Fergus counties recently consolidated their coroner offices with the sheriffs office.

“What are we going to do when we lose a case or get sued because we can’t get a coroner or have a conflict of interest? It’s something that if we don’t have a discussion about it, we’re crazy.”

Slaughter said another option would be to go to the Legislature and ask for a law change, but he doesn’t feel that it’s right to have consolidated sheriff and coroner offices.

“I think it’s completely foul,” he said.

There are 10 deputies currently certified to work as coroners and CCSO is short staffed so there are manning and scheduling challenges, and Slaughter said the coroners budget at CCSO is $110,000 annually.

He said there are only 10 deputies certified as coroners because that’s all the county can currently afford to pay stipends to for the additional duty.

If the office was split, that budget would be transferred from CCSO to the newly created office and the county sheriff’s position would lose $3,000 in pay annually for that additional duty.

A coroner has to be on every shift, which complicates scheduling, Slaughter said.

“The problem just multiplies and multiplies and becomes huge administrative issue,” he said.

They looked at using an on call system, but that causes significant overtime expenses, he said.

Slaughter said that the coroner is a necessary function of county government, but it’s “not a public safety function.”

With deputies performing the duties, “it’s hindering public safety in cascade county,” he said.

Death investigations can take months to complete, even when it’s by natural causes, Slaughter said, and that’s time deputies aren’t doing public safety work. There are about 700 deaths annually in the county, most by natural causes, he said.

Coroner duties can also take a toll on deputies, who are already exposed to traumatic events.

“I worry about the mental health of my people seeing that much death and carnage,” Slaughter said. “When you see that much human suffering, I just worry about our deputies and how much of this stuff they can take.”