Suit over Bearcreek drug bust ends with cash payment - KTVQ.com | Q2 | Continuous News Coverage | Billings, MT

Suit over Bearcreek drug bust ends with cash payment

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(When this house in Bearcreek was targeted for a drug bust in January 2016, it touched off a series of events that are still reverberating in Red Lodge. Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

RED LODGE - A resident of Bearcreek who sued the city of Red Lodge and its former police chief over what she said was an illegal drug raid has dropped her suit and accepted an offer of $25,000 from the defendants.

Tiffany McKinney, then 25, filed the lawsuit in February 2016, saying she had been wrongfully arrested and injured during a drug raid that targeted a separate house on the property she lived on in Bearcreek,  reports Last Best News.

Her suit, filed by Red Lodge attorneys Raymond Kuntz and A.W. “Tony” Kendall, named as defendants the city, then-Police Chief Steven Hibler and Police Officer Greg Srock. McKinney asked for damages of at least $1 million.

Although the lawsuit was filed in Carbon County, a judgment ending the suit was signed on Oct. 29, 2017, by Yellowstone County District Judge Michael Moses. The two-sentence judgment read:

“Judgment is hereby entered pursuant to M.R. Civ.P.68(a) against defendants Greg Srock, Steven Hilber and the City of Red Lodge in the amount of $25,000.00. Post judgment interest shall accrue on the above judgment amount at the rate of 10% per annum until paid in full.”

Kuntz said his client settled because she “is trying to get on with her life” and didn’t welcome the prospect of dragged-out legal proceedings and an eventual trial. He said she accepted the judgment because “it made the point that she wanted to make, that this never should have happened.”

This differs from a settlement, Kuntz said, in that a settlement usually carries numerous restrictions, forbidding either party from saying how much money was offered or divulging any other details of the settlement.

A judgment, he said, is a public record that carries no restrictions or conditions and is something that could be brought up in court if someone were to sue the city of Red Lodge over a similar matter in the future.

“That’s why the city might like to call it a settlement agreement, but it’s not,” he said.

Michael Lilly, a Bozeman lawyer who represented the city of Red Lodge in the case, said the judgment was simply “a tool that assists the parties in reaching a settlement” and involves no admission of wrongdoing by the city. He said the settlement offer was made “to put it behind us and save any further expense.”

Also, he said, McKinney is “a nice young gal” who slipped and fell during the incident in Bearcreek, and “the city was willing to pay her something for slipping and falling.”

As for Kuntz’s statement that the judgment could be used against the city in future lawsuits, Lilly said only, “That’s a legal argument that I would certainly disagree with.”

Judge Moses, for his part, said he “saw very little of the case” before both parties came to him with the proposed judgment. Asked to comment on Kuntz’s statements regarding the order of judgment, Moses said, “Any of those underlying things? Those are things counsel needs to respond to.”

McKinney’s lawsuit listed nine counts of damage claims, including violations of her right to privacy, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure and her right to due process, as well as claims for false arrest, false imprisonment, assault and battery, trespass, negligence and vicarious liability on the part of the city for the actions of its employees.

The suit also alleged that the search warrant for the raid in Bearcreek, which occurred either late on Jan. 23 or shortly after midnight on Jan. 24, 2016, was applied for under fraudulent circumstances, and in any case named a residence at 112 N. First St. in Bearcreek as the target of the warrant.

McKinney, who lived in a detached house behind the house named in the warrant, said Srock and Hibler entered her house without her consent, forced her to her knees and handcuffed her wrists behind her back.

Then, as she was being led outside, she slipped on some ice and fell, sustaining injuries that she said required treatment at the Beartooth Billings Clinic. After she fell, she said, Srock picked her up and placed her in a locked police car while they completed the raid.

Meanwhile, the two people living in the house in front of McKinney’s were arrested and charged with felony possession of dangerous drugs.

Shortly after the raid, Carbon County Attorney Alex Nixon wrote a letter to then-Mayor Ed Williams, saying that the search warrant signed by the justice of the peace “appears to be founded on an implicit or intentional misrepresentation.”

Nixon said the Police Department applied for a search warrant for the house in Bearcreek a week earlier but the justice denied it because Bearcreek was outside the city’s jurisdiction. A week later, Nixon continued, Srock, a city police officer, applied for a similar warrant in his capacity as a Carbon County sheriff’s reserve deputy.

“Simply put, this was not true,” Nixon said. In his letter, Nixon also said Srock had been relieved of his reserve deputy duties.

Because of the dispute between the city and the county, the state attorney general’s office was asked to consider filing charges against the couple arrested in Bearcreek. In March 2016, an assistant attorney general declined to do so, saying the drug raid was “inappropriate” because Red Lodge police had no jurisdiction there.

In April, Hibler announced he was resigning effective June 30, citing hostility from Carbon County officials and a lack of community support. And in June, Williams announced that he would be resigning as mayor on June 29.

Reverberations of the case continue to be felt in Red Lodge. Joel Todd, who was the city prosecutor at the time of the raid, recently filed suit against two sisters, Diane Dimich and Mary Cameron, who openly criticized city officials, including Todd, over their handling of the Bearcreek raid and its fallout. Dimich and Cameron then filed their own counterclaims.

It was Todd who claimed that a state law gave Red Lodge police authority to act in Bearcreek. The assistant attorney general flatly rejected Todd’s interpretation of the law.

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