A state investigation into allegations of excessive use of force by a former Missoula County deputy sheriff has been turned over to Lake County prosecutors to decide whether to file criminal charges.
In May, the Montana Department of Justice opened an investigation into Douglas Hartsell following reports from three other deputies who were present when they say his use of force in arresting a man in November 2017 was overly aggressive.
State authorities have since wrapped up that investigation turned it over to the Missoula County Attorney's Office, who in turn asked the Lake County prosecutors to consider the investigative findings. Department spokesman John Barnes said the DOJ doesn't recommend whether or not charges should be filed, but simply presents the facts of the case and evidence.
Lake County Attorney Steven Eschenbacher told the Missoulian Tuesday he has not yet reviewed the case, and can't until he is appointed as a special prosecutor by the Missoula County commissioners, which is slated to take place on Oct. 2.
The status of Hartsell's case was mentioned during a Tuesday hearing in which Judge Robert "Dusty" Deschamps denied, in part, the Missoulian's request for records related to the November arrest.
Brandon Shea, the 20-year-old arrested in the incident, told the Missoulian that he was resisting and at one point kicked Hartsell. He also said Hartsell lifted him up off the ground using a chain Shea wears around his neck, strangling him to the point he couldn't breathe.
Following the kick, Shea was reportedly pulled from the car, put in leg restraints and then was sat on by one of the deputies, to the point he couldn't breathe, Shea said.
An internal investigation was launched in January and Hartsell subsequently went on medical leave. Hartsell has since left the department on a medical retirement.
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At the Missoulian's request, the Missoula County Attorneys Office initiated a court proceeding to have a judge determine what internal investigative materials from the sheriff's office, as well as the body camera footage from the arrest, should be publicly released.
Hartsell, through his attorney, has sought to block the release of those materials.
On Tuesday, Deschamps ruled to hold back the release of the body camera video and all but one of the investigative records pending the outcome of the Lake County Attorney's decision.
He agreed to release one document that did not mention Hartsell when he files his written order in the case.
Deschamps said he was concerned about releasing confidential criminal justice information that may taint a potential jury pool if charges are eventually filed against Hartsell.
He was also troubled, he said, about the potential to influence this year's sheriff's election by releasing information regarding the sheriff's internal process. Sheriff T.J. McDermott is seeking reelection in November against Travis Waftstet, a detective in the sheriff's office who has been a deputy since 2013.
"It really isn't a legal deal, but it is a concern that because of the way this played out that the timing is going to have some political consequence," Deschamps said. "I hate to be an actor in that whole arena."