APPEAL FROM: District Court of the Eleventh Judicial District, In and For the County of Flathead, Cause No. DC-10-407C Honorable Stewart E. Stadler, Presiding Judge
The opinion of the court was delivered by: James C. Nelson
Submitted on Briefs: June 19, 2012
Justice James C. Nelson delivered the Opinion of the Court.
¶1 Ralph Jentile appeals a decision of the District Court for the Eleventh Judicial District, Flathead County, ordering Jentile to pay for the repairs to two Whitefish Police Department patrol cars that collided with each other while pursuing Jentile. We reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this Opinion.
¶2 Jentile raises two issues on appeal which we have restated as follows:
¶3 1. Whether the amount of restitution Jentile was ordered to pay should be reduced because of the alleged comparative negligence of the officer involved in the accident.
¶4 2. In the alternative, whether Jentile's trial counsel was ineffective for failing to specifically argue that the amount of restitution Jentile was ordered to pay should be reduced because of the alleged comparative negligence of the officer involved in the accident.
¶5 Because we conclude that the first issue is dispositive, we do not address the second issue.
Factual and Procedural Background
¶6 On October 28, 2009, the Helena Veteran's Administration (the VA) contacted the Whitefish Police Department (the Police) regarding concerns the VA's medical staff had for Jentile who was one of the VA's clients. The VA medical staff reported that they were concerned that Jentile might be suffering from suicidal thoughts based on a phone inquiry Jentile had made regarding the lethality of lithium and the lack of an antidote.
¶7 In response to the VA's call, the Police twice attempted to locate Jentile at his Whitefish residence to conduct a welfare check, but he was not at home either time.
Consequently, Officer Ryan Zebro placed several calls to Jentile's cellular phone. In the first call, Jentile hung up on the officer. In the second call, Jentile explained to Officer Zebro that he was not suicidal. In the third call, Officer Zebro informed Jentile that the VA had ordered an evaluation for Jentile and that Jentile needed to turn himself in. Jentile told Officer Zebro that he was not suicidal, that he wanted to be left alone, and that he would not turn himself in. Jentile also threatened to retaliate if the police did not leave him alone. After the third phone call, Officer Zebro put out an "attempt to locate" for Jentile. A short time later, another officer responded that he had sighted Jentile's vehicle driving through town.
¶8 The Police used three patrol cars to stop Jentile. The first patrol car stopped traffic while the second patrol car pulled alongside Jentile, and the third patrol car pulled in behind him. All three patrol cars had activated their flashing lights.
¶9 Jentile initially pulled over, but before the officers could get out of their vehicles, Jentile pulled back out into traffic and drove off with the patrol cars in pursuit. One officer estimated that they were driving 45-50 miles per hour in a 25 mile-per-hour zone. After winding through a residential section of Whitefish, Jentile turned left onto a side street and made another immediate left into a driveway (which turned out to be his own). The first patrol car was able to stop several feet behind Jentile's vehicle. Officer Zebro, who was driving immediately behind the first patrol car, rear-ended that car with his own patrol car. When Jentile exited his vehicle, the officers tasered him, handcuffed him, and transported him to the hospital for a mental evaluation.
¶10 The Montana Highway Patrol (MHP) investigated the crash. In its investigative report, MHP concluded that the crash occurred because Officer Zebro was following too closely. Officer Zebro was not cited for this infraction, but he did receive a letter of reprimand in his file.
¶11 The Police initially presented felony charges to the County Attorney, but after reviewing the police video and reading the charging documents, the County Attorney declined felony prosecution. Instead, Jentile was charged with three misdemeanors: Resisting Arrest in violation of § 45-7-301, MCA; Reckless Driving in violation of § 61-8-301(1), MCA; and Eluding a Peace Officer in violation of § 61-8-316, MCA. In addition, the City of Whitefish (the City) requested restitution for the damage to the two patrol cars.
¶12 Pursuant to a plea agreement, the charges of Resisting Arrest and Reckless Driving were dismissed, and Jentile pled guilty to the remaining charge of Eluding a Peace Officer. In addition, the plea agreement specified that a hearing regarding restitution would be held separate from ...