Missoula County Courthouse stockimage

Missoula County has reached a $50,000 settlement with a former detention officer who claimed that, based on altered court records, she was pulled over and arrested for driving under the influence.

At the start of May, a settlement and release signed by Angie Smith was filed with the Missoula County Clerk and Treasurer’s office. Despite the settlement, the county does not admit liability in the case.

Anne Hughes, communications and projects director for the county, said the settlement money came from the county’s risk fund, and was approved by the county commissioners at a May 11 meeting.

The settlement is the latest paid out by the county related to disputes between current and former employees of the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office and allegations about the actions of the current and former sheriff’s administrations. Since 2014, such settlements have cost the county roughly $255,000.

Last summer, Smith filed a lawsuit claiming a sheriff’s captain, William Burt, and a former Justice Court clerk, Amy Blixt, conspired to alter records that led to Smith being arrested.

Burt was dismissed from the suit four days before Smith signed the settlement with the county and Blixt. Smith's attorney Quentin Rhoades said they agreed remove Burt because by law he is immune from claims for any acts committed in his official capacity with the sheriff’s office.

In February 2015, Smith met former deputy Paige Pavalone at Lolo Peak Brewery. Her lawsuit said Burt was also present, and alleged that Burt contacted Blixt to request information from the court file of Smith’s 2014 conviction for driving under the influence.

Smith claimed that her original sentence did not include any prohibition on being in bars or drinking, and that Blixt, who had served as an interim Justice of the Peace and presided over the case, later added that prohibition to court documents. Blixt later resigned from Missoula County Justice Court. Smith’s sentence originally specified that she would have a probationary license that was only to be used for essential driving.

Smith was pulled over after leaving the brewery, and said in her lawsuit that when she asked the deputy why she was being stopped, he said, “Because I was told.” Smith was charged with aggravated DUI after a test showed she had a 0.081 blood-alcohol content, just over the legal limit of 0.08. She was placed on leave and later fired from her job at the jail, although the DUI charge was dismissed. Smith pleaded guilty to driving with a probationary license.

In her lawsuit, Smith made a wide range of claims, alleging that defendants used a simulated cellphone tower device — commonly called a Stingray — to intercept text messages between her and Pavalone in which they discussed meeting at the brewery.

Pavalone was fired in spring 2015. A news release issued at the time said she had not been truthful during an internal investigation of Smith’s case. Pavalone has an open lawsuit of her own against the county, claiming she was terminated for backing Sheriff T.J. McDermott’s opponent in the 2014 election. A Montana Human Rights Bureau investigation found no discrimination against Pavalone.

Smith’s lawsuit eventually was moved to federal court. It was dismissed earlier this month after the settlement and release was signed.

Rhoades, her attorney, declined to comment on the settlement, citing its confidentiality section.

“Ms. Smith is quite satisfied with the outcome of the case and feels vindicated,” he said.

***

In 2014, the county paid T.J. McDermott and Jason Johnson $60,000 each after the pair filed a complaint with the Montana Human Rights Bureau saying they were discriminated against in the sheriff’s office after it became clear McDermott intended to run for sheriff and Johnson would be his undersheriff if elected.

In spring 2015, the county reached a $60,000 settlement with deputy Rebecca Birket over discrimination and harassment she faced under previous sheriff Carl Ibsen’s administration in regards to an internal investigation. Birket’s complaint was turned down by the Human Rights Bureau, but she pursued a civil lawsuit in the matter.

Almost two years ago, the county agreed to allow former Capt. Mike Dominick retire from the sheriff’s office but immediately begin in a new position as an investigator with the Missoula County Attorney’s Office in exchange for him dropping a Human Rights Bureau complaint claiming a demotion after McDermott took office. Dominick was also paid a settlement of $25,000.

Earlier this year, The Montana Human Rights Bureau issued a decision denying claims by former undersheriff Josh Clark — who ran against McDermott in 2014 — that he was discriminated against after McDermott took office. Clark, whose attorneys have in the past said is seeking $750,000 in damages, still has an open civil lawsuit on the matter.

This story has been updated to clarify that Capt. William Burt was dismissed from the lawsuit and was not involved in the settlement agreement.

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