The man who mistook himself for the law

Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen makes a mockery of the justice system

November 18, 2021 4:47 am

The office of the Attorney General of Montana (Photo by Eric Seidle/ For the Daily Montanan).

It shouldn’t be a fine line for a guy who presumably spent years studying the law, making the law in the Legislature, and practicing the law, but Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen has confused himself by misunderstanding that while he is a lawyer, he’s not the law.

You may be tempted to think, “This is going to be about the St. Peter’s incident.” You know, that healthcare dust-up now being investigated by the legislature’s special counsel. That situation where Knudsen is alleged to have intervened because a prominent Republican woman with COVID-19 was refused horse dewormer for a treatment. Knudsen sent members of the Highway Patrol to talk with staff, presumably to pressure them with a badge to give the nice lady the medicine, while the attorney general jawed on leaders of the organization.

Alas, that would be bad enough. Yet, this column concerns Helena hot-head Rodney Robert Smith, a man accused of threatening Helena restaurant employees for being asked to wear a face covering. Accounts of the incident also indicated Smith had a gun, although that’s disputed, and while the Attorney General’s Office has seen fit to settle the case, it hasn’t consented to questions about it from the mere mortals in the press gaggle, so the details are still in dispute.

What is clear is that Smith will have to admit to a misdemeanor charge of disturbing the peace and pay a $50 fine.

Yet, this is what passes for justice in Knudsen’s world. As Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher was handling the case, Knudsen demanded that his office take it over for reasons that are still not clear. Unclear, in part, because his office refuses to speak about the circumstances.

There are so many things problematic about this case, it’s hard to know where to start – but it’s another example of Knudsen using his office to second-guess and “bigfoot” others, just like the incident at St. Peter’s.

Regardless, Smith will suffer a lighter consequence than most garden-variety speeding tickets, but what he was accused of doing is anything but normal.

Let’s recap the mostly undisputed facts of the case, including Lee Newspapers’ Holly Michels reporting: Smith walked into a restaurant, knocked water all over a table and made a scene when he was asked to put on a mask or leave. Keep in mind, Smith went to the restaurant voluntarily. While there, Smith struck a staff member in the genitals several times and pinned them to a wall, according to an affidavit. The reports indicate he exposed a gun to an employee and said, “I’m going to get you.”

Taken at nothing more than face value, let’s just imagine this situation in any other context.

If I walked into a restaurant, disobeyed its rules, was asked to comply, then touched anybody – employee or otherwise – in the genitals, flashed a gun and also made threats, what kind of treatment could I expect? I assume there’s enough in that description to earn me several felony charges.

Why not here? Why not this case?

Sadly, Smith’s disturbing actions, Knudsen’s take-over of the case and then the paltry fine have the cumulative effect of endorsing violence, especially against those who are simply trying to do their job. Another rung in a dangerous ladder of escalation where means are justified by the politics they serve. You know, if you’re defending your freedom to spread disease to others in a public place, then go ahead, grab ’em by the … nevermind, Republicans have been down this road before, too.

It also sends a message to workers during the pandemic that law enforcement has your back if you have the right politics. Otherwise, good luck with that threatening man who may have a gun and said he’s going to get you.

And folks wonder why workers aren’t eagerly running back to the workforce.

Finally, it appears that the Legislature is at least somewhat interested in Knudsen’s extra-curricular activities, so to speak, as witnessed by their commissioning of special counsel Abra Belke to look into the St. Peter’s incident. If that’s the case, they should add in the case of Smith to the larger special counsel investigation.  Knudsen has so little respect for the laws they pass that he will intervene and settle with little more than a $50 slap on the wrist. If I were a lawmaker, I’d be worried that Knudsen isn’t enforcing the law as it’s written, rather as he wishes. That’s the same worry we’ve heard over and over again from these same GOP lawmakers about the apparently liberal judiciary.

If no man is above the law, what happens to the man who thinks he is the law?

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.