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Boniek found guilty, receives sentence

Enterprise photos by Shawn Raecke

Former state legislator Joel Boniek delivers his opening statement in front of a jury in Park County Justice Court in the City-County Complex, Friday afternoon.

 

 

After more than five hours of deliberations, a jury Friday night found a former state legislator guilty of three misdemeanors related to allegations he ran a roadblock during a July 2012 wildfire near his Paradise Valley home.

 

Park County Sheriff’s Department Det. Brian Green, right, and Corp. Steve Voss stand guard near a metal detector outside Park County Justice Court during Joel Boniek’s trial in Livingston, Friday afternoon. 

 

Jurors convicted Joel Boniek, a 2009 House of Representatives member who also ran for lieutenant governor in the 2012 governor’s primary, of misdemeanor obstructing a peace officer, resisting arrest and fleeing from or eluding a peace officer.

Park County Justice Court Justice of the Peace Linda Budeski sentenced Boniek after jurors delivered the verdict. She fined him $1,105 and gave him 10 days in jail, with the jail time suspended one year. He will also be assessed jury costs, which are still being calculated.

Throughout his prosecution, Boniek’s court hearings at times have been marked by vocal crowds of supporters challenging the court’s proceedings and the charges against Boniek. 

But at Friday’s trial, supporters were generally quiet until after sentencing. And Boniek, who represented himself, presented a defense that stated he was merely reacting to a threat — a wildfire approaching his home.

“Would you condemn a man for going home to protect his home, his family, his animals?” he said.

As he’s fought his case, Boniek has made various legal arguments, including that the court and Park County officials lack legitimacy and jurisdiction. 

He also has levied some unusual arguments, such as objecting to the court writing his name in all capital letters on documents. Such a denotation indicates “an artificial person, not a natural, flesh and blood creation of God,” he wrote in one filing. In another filing, he said officials must “provide proof of the Letter of Marque from either Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II or the Principal (Boniek) granting permission to plunder” his estate. 

A week before the trial, Budeski granted a motion from Deputy County Attorney Kathleen Carrick to restrict what Boniek could bring up Friday. Limitations included no references to bonds and oaths of office, which Boniek has said court and county officials lack and therefore render the court illegitimate.

After the trial, Boniek said those limits were improper.

“This trial has been entirely unfair. I have been denied due process from the first day,” he said.

When asked for his reaction to the verdict, Boniek said he will rely on his faith for guidance in processing the news and determining how to proceed.

“God’s in control, and I just want to fit into his plan,” he said.

Boniek said he isn’t sure just yet “where God’s going with this” but he trusts God to lead him.

When asked if he will appeal Friday’s finding, Boniek said he needs to think about it. 

Prosecutors say Boniek, 51, failed to stop at an emergency roadblock set up near his home in the Paradise Valley during a wildfire and drove at high speeds as he evaded multiple law enforcement officers who tried to pull him over. They say he also refused to comply with officers’ orders once he did stop.

On Friday, Boniek told jurors he was simply trying to reach his property to ensure his wife, animals and belongings were safe from the approaching fire. 

“You don’t think, ‘Am I going too fast?’” he said. “You think, ‘Can I make it in time?’”

Instead of officers from the Montana Highway Patrol and the Park County Sheriff’s Office helping him, they held him back, the former legislator said. 

“Ladies and gentleman, I wasn’t obstructing — I was being obstructed,” Boniek said. 

When Boniek took the stand to testify, Carrick asked him why he didn’t think standard rules and practices — such as pulling over when an officer is behind him with lights and sirens — applied to him.

“You just want to do what you want to do and not have anybody tell you what to do, correct?” Carrick asked Boniek.

Boniek replied he was abiding by a “higher law” that compelled him to protect his wife and animals and to help out his neighbors whose properties were threatened by fire. 

Jurors watched video footage shot from the vehicle of the MHP trooper behind Boniek during the chase, which lasted about 1.5 miles and reached speeds of more than 60 mph on a gravel road.

The video shows Boniek driving past some law enforcement vehicles that were either approaching him or parked in the roadway. The footage also shows Boniek exiting his truck and officers yelling at him before pushing him to the ground.

Carrick said the tape shows Boniek wasn’t complying with officers’ orders to put his hands up, causing them to take measures – including forcing him down — to ensure their own safety. Officers testified they believed Boniek was armed, had trouble seeing his hands at certain times and that they needed to secure the situation.

Boniek told jurors the officers were yelling contradictory, confusing commands. He acknowledged he was wearing a holstered handgun but said he never made a move to use it.

 He testified the officers were unnecessarily rough between pushing him to the ground and handcuffing him, the latter of which he said left welts for days. 

Throughout the trial, law enforcement maintained a strong presence in the City-County Complex. Numerous officers from multiple agencies were stationed throughout the building. Courtroom patrons had to walk through a metal detector and have belongings checked before entering the court. 

At a hearing this fall, a Boniek supporter yelled at Budeski and the crowd in the courtroom became agitated as the man challenged the legitimacy of the court and the authority of the officers in the room. On Friday, though, the crowd of about 30 to 40 people was comparatively quiet.

But after Budeski pronounced Boniek’s sentence, some supporters responded in anger. “Boo!” one man said loudly.

“Totally a disgrace,” said another.

One man told Carrick he needed her personal information so he could file a public recall against her. Carrick responded that pertinent information is available through the state and that she’s under no obligation to provide him with additional personal information.

“What a kangaroo court,” another person said. A man began hopping up and down.

Outside the courthouse, Boniek gathered with several people, whom he thanked for their support. They in turn thanked him for standing up for what he believed in and encouraged him to appeal the decision.