E-mail Story   Print Story
  Comments (2) Total Monday Apr. 21, 2014
Montana Lawmakers Reckon to Head Off Rustlers with Penalties
Horse Rustling
An ear-tagged angus rests in the sun near Missoula recently. Legislation increasing penalties for rustling livestock awaits the governor’s signature. - Photo by Alison Smith
In late March of 1885 two men trailing horses from Canada were surrounded in a saloon near Dupuyer by a “committee” of two-dozen armed men, most of them carrying Winchesters.

According to the Sun River Sun, the horse traders, suspected of being horse thieves, eventually “accepted an invitation to take an active part in a neck tie sociable.” They were buried on Birch Creek, about a mile above the saloon.

They don’t hang rustlers these days, but Montana’s Legislature has passed a bill this session to jack-up the penalties for stealing livestock.

Senate Bill 214 requires that a person convicted of the theft or illegal branding of any livestock pay a minimum fine of $5,000 and not exceeding $50,000 or serve a jail sentence not exceeding 10 years or both. The current law has no mandatory minimum fine.

An earlier version of the bill would have set the minimum fine at $10,000, which suited Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Harve, just fine.

“We used to hang these people in Montana, and, unfortunately, we went from hanging them to a pittance right now," Warburton told her House colleagues recently.

The current bill also says that if a jail sentence is deferred, offenders must contribute a mandatory 416 hours of community service. In addition, any equipment used in the crime – trucks, horse-trailers, etc. – could be confiscated. An earlier version of the bill would have allowed authorities to seize a rustler's ranch.

“The reason for the bill is to put more teeth in the law so we can somehow punish these people,” said Sen. Don Steinbeisser, R-Sidney, who introduced the bill.

SB 214 passed by overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate, though the frequency of livestock thefts is difficult to gauge.

The state Public Defender’s Office says it defended two cases of rustling last year. The state’s special Crimestoppers hot line for livestock crimes received eight calls last year, though officials say other reports are made to local law enforcement officials and county hot lines.

A recent case of large-scale rustling in northeast Montana made news because it was so unusual, but John Grainger, administrator of the Brands Enforcement Division at the Montana Department of Livestock, said small-scale thefts involving an animal or two are persistent.

That's why he supports the passage of SB 214.

“I agree with it,” Grainger said. “There needs to be a bigger penalty to deter the crime.”

The bill's opponents in the Legislature argued that rustling is already covered under state’s laws against felony theft, which give judges leeway to tailor the punishment to fit the crime. They also noted that any revenue raised by increasing fines will not go to compensate ranchers for stolen stock.

Rep. Mike Menahan, D-Helena and a prosecutor in Lewis and Clark County, said the penalties were unfair because no other property crime carry a mandatory minimum fine or mandatory community service. Others asked why the law should treat rustlers more harshly than someone who steals a flat-screen TV.

That’s because flat-screen TV’s don’t produce other TVs, the bill’s supporters said.

Stealing a cow, with its potential to produce calves, "is stealing someone’s livelihood,” said Rep. Ed Butcher, R-Winifred, a rancher himself.

The bill's House sponsor, Rep. Tony Belcourt, D-Box Elder and also a rancher, noted the recent conviction Roosevelt County in what officials described as the biggest Montana cattle rustling case in decades. The bill would serve as a deterrent, he said.

Richard D. Holen, of Wolf Point, was convicted earlier this month in Roosevelt County District County of eight counts of felony theft for allegedly stealing cattle from eight neighboring ranchers.

During the investigation, officials said they found 33 stolen cows, calves, bulls and heifers in addition to six other cows and calves that Holen had previously sold. The prosecutor told the Associated Press that he couldn't find a comparable case in Montana since the early 1900s.

Under current laws, Holen faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine for each of the eight counts. He has yet to be sentenced.

The bill awaits Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s signature.
On 04-29-09, Nikki commented....
You are right, this must be a joke, cause you only get 5 years in jail for stealing a car. You would have to steel a few cows to make it worth 50K…
Kellyn Brown
Kellyn Brown12h
Landslide slowly destroying part of Wyoming resort town http://t.co/ggvVuuJKTG
Dillon Tabish
Dillon Tabish7h
Good night from Flathead Lake. #montanamoment http://t.co/9mJAN46Ovb
Molly Priddy
Molly Priddy18 Apr
@natashavc @TaraAriano @allyzay Oh no, I've been thinking it's a room for all your types of mustards. Recalibrating my ideas now.
Tristan Scott
Tristan Scott19 Apr
@tristanscott *Billie Joe
Flathead Beacon
FB Headlines23h
Kalispell’s Core Area Redevelopment Plan Inches Forward http://t.co/EO2le2frPY