Cascade County Sheriff criticizes judge for ordering man to jail over mask
Cascade County Jesse Slaughter has taken issue with a District Court judge over masks this week.
On Aug. 24, Phillip Dupaul reported for jury duty at the Hilton Garden Inn.
According to a release from Slaughter, “Phillip refused to wear a mask upon entering the meeting room for jury duty.”
Judge John Larson was substituting for Judge Greg Pinski in the case and told Dupaul to wear a mask, according to Slaughter’s release.
“When he refused, Judge Larson issued a contempt of court order for Phillip to go to jail for 24 hours. This order by the judge then forced my deputy (the bailiff) to have to arrest Phillip and place him in the Cascade County Detention Center,” according to Slaughter’s release.
“I’m extremely frustrated and disappointed in how this situation was handled by Judge Larson. He did not consult with me regarding his decision. This whole mask order is contentious, to say the least. We as the government should not be incarcerating and oppressing our citizens during this crisis over a mask order,” Slaughter wrote in his release.
Slaughter said the sheriff’s office is required by law to enforce the judge’s order.
Larson issues a juror questionnaire that is sent out in advance if a juror objects to wearing a mask, according to court officials. If a juror answers yes, Larson excuses the person before the trial starts. Typically those forms are mailed to potential jurors and returned to the court before jury selection begins.
The Electric has reached out to Larson and will update the story if he responds.
Dupaul told The Electric on Aug. 28 that he was filling out that form at the Hilton Garden Inn when a bailiff approached him and asked if he had a mask. Dupaul said no and the bailiff offered to get him a mask. Dupaul said he wouldn’t be wearing one. Dupaul said the bailiff walked away but returned with the judge and several lawyers who asked Dupaul to go into the foyer. Dupaul said the judge discussed the mask rule and protecting the health of others but Dupaul said he can’t wear a mask because he can’t breath while wearing it.
“I knew there could be a conflict over a mask,” Dupaul told The Electric. “I hoped he would dismiss me and let it be.”
Dupaul said the judge told him he’d hold him in contempt and send him to jail for 24 hours. Dupaul said he told the judge that he lacked the authority to do so because the governor’s mask order wasn’t valid.
Gov. Steve Bullock’s mask mandate for all public places, including government buildings such as the courthouse and the hotel where trials have been held to allow for more distancing, has been in place since July 15. The Cascade County health officer has also issued a local mask mandate and the Montana Supreme Court has issued directives encouraging the use of masks in court settings.
Dupaul told The Electric that he believed the governor’s mask order expired after 30 days and at that time, he needed to go to the Legislature to have it extended.
A spokeswoman for Bullock told The Electric that the “mask requirement is in effect until the end of the declared state of emergency. The state of emergency is tied to the national emergency, so it will end once the national emergency ends.”
Whether the mask order is valid is irrelevant since under the law, a judge’s order stands within their courtroom, until challenged or withdrawn through the legal process, according to the Cascade County Attorney’s Office.
Three of the four local district court judges have standing orders regarding masks that require anyone entering courtrooms must wear a mask or face covering. Those three orders have been in place since June.
In June, a potential juror entered Judge Elizabeth Best’s courtroom without a mask. The county attorney gave an informal warning that the juror was defying a binding court order, according to Judge John Kutzman’s June 23 order, that the juror ignored. Best and lead counsel for each side then approached and discusses the situation with the potential juror.
“The potential juror ultimately relented and put on a mask to avoid being fined and jailed for contempt,” according to Kutzman’s order.
Kutzman’s order required masks and states that anyone who violates the order could face jail or fines for contempt of court and also be held personally liable for all costs associated with any delay in court proceedings due to the contempt.
Slaughter said in his release that he’s worked with the four local District Court judges to avoid such a situation over masks in court.
Slaughter told The Electric that his frustration isn’t with a judge holding someone in contempt but sending them to jail during a COVID-19 outbreak.
On Aug. 21, Slaughter announced that one inmate in the jail had tested positive for COVID-19. Jail officials began widespread testing of all inmates and CCSO employees and by 4 p.m. Aug. 24, Slaughter announced that there were 55 positive cases associate with the jail, 53 of which were inmates, two were detention officers.
On Aug. 28, he told The Electric that a third detention officer had tested positive.
Dupaul said he was booked into the jail at 9:15 a.m. Aug. 24. The outbreak at the jail had not yet been announced, but the first positive case had been announced several days prior.
DuPaul said he was put into an area where one person was positive for COVID and in a cell by himself, but that others had been exposed to him.
Slaughter said that there is not a cell will 53 positive people and that since testing was ongoing when Dupaul was booked, there’s a “high likelihood” he could have been exposed.
The Cascade County City-County Health Department is still conducting contact tracing for the jail outbreak.
“Taking a healthy person and ordering them to jail for not wearing a mask, where there is a known COVID outbreak, is reckless and very troublesome, especially over the highly contentious and debatable mask order,” Slaughter said in a release.