The Problem When The Sheriff Is Also The Coroner

by William Skink

In trying to understand Project Safe Neighborhoods and how local government functions, an astute reader of RD pointed out the fact the Missoula County Sheriff’s Department is ALSO the coroner for Missoula County.

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This hadn’t occurred to me as being problematic, but when it was pointed out, well, yeah, I can see how conflicts of interest could arise. Apparently the Sheriff of Cascade County has similar concerns, which is why he’s asking County Commissioners to separate the coroner from the Sheriff’s Dept. like it was 20 years ago (emphasis mine):

Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter has asked the County Commission to split the offices of sheriff and coroner, which are currently combined.

Under state law, the county coroner is a publicly elected office, but can be consolidated with certain other elected offices if a county chooses to follow a process spelled out in the law.

Cascade County opted to combine the offices about 20 years ago, Slaughter said, but he’s asking commissioners to split them again since “there’s a fundamental conflict of the office of the sheriff and the coroner being combined.”

Later in the article the potential for conflict is described as twofold:

Coroners can enter, take photos, seize medication and more, while law enforcement typically needs a search warrant to enter and search a premises.

So if a deputy is performing a search as the coroner and finds evidence related to a criminal investigation, there could be legal issues related to lawful searches, Slaughter said.

Another concern, Slaughter said, is the question of whether a coroner and law enforcement are at odds. For example, he said, if a deputy says a death was the result of a self-inflicted gunshot, but the deputy acting as coroner rules the death a homicide.

“If they’re at odds with the finding, ultimately as the sheriff, I pick which ever one I want to believe,” Slaughter said. “I have total absolute power over death investigations.”

Do we, as a community, want our elected Sheriff to have this kind of power over death investigations? Elected office means politics, so this power means the power to push an agenda of prosecuting, or NOT prosecuting, certain types of crimes. Sheriff Slaughter continues describing his concern about the danger in this:

Slaughter said that’s not how he operates at the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office and works with the county attorneys office in death investigations but with the consolidated office, “it would be really easy to miss something.”

Slaughter said he also worries about deputies who have to investigate the death and the crime and come to a conclusion entirely on their own.

“I think it’s dangerous, I really do,” Slaughter said.

In the case of a death that occurs during a law enforcement response, such as an officer involved shooting, when someone is being transported to jail, or dies in jail, the death investigation cannot be conducted by someone who also serves as a peace officer, according to Montana law.

With the combined office in Cascade County and most other counties in Montana, it’s getting harder to find a civilian coroner to handle those investigations. Typically, local officials call the civilian coroner in Petroleum County to handle those cases.

This does sound like a serious problem, and it raises even more questions for me about how the wheels of injustice are functioning in our gentrified liberal utopia.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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1 Response to The Problem When The Sheriff Is Also The Coroner

  1. Coroner/sheriff issues are presented as budgetary. They are not. This is an excellent insight on your part. I hope you keep it on your mind as time rolls on.

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