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Escape From TransCor Van Not a Crime in Montana

On January 11, 2006, a Montana state district court set aside two prisoners' convictions for escape and acquitted them after holding that no evidence had been presented that they were in the custody of a peace officer, a requirement for the crime of escape in Montana.

William Leonard Brown and Brian Joseph Holliday, Montana state prisoners, were being transported by employees of TransCor, Inc., a private company owned by Corrections Corporation of America that transports prisoners under contract with the Montana Department of Corrections, when they fled from the TransCor van. The TransCor employees were not peace officers.

A jury convicted Brown and Holliday of felony escape. They then filed a motion seeking to set aside the verdict and be declared not guilty by the court. The basis of the motion was that state law defined escape as knowingly or purposely eluding official detention. Section 45-7-306, MCA.
Official detention is in turn defined as "placement of a person in the legal custody of a municipality, a county, or the state as the result of the actual or constructive constraint or custody of a person by a peace officer pursuant to arrest, transport, or court order." Section 45-7-306(1)(a)(ii), MCA. The trial court had given jury instructions defining escape which tracked the statutes' language.

The state opposed the motion, arguing that the statute meant a person could escape custody "in one of three ways: 1) by a peace officer pursuant to arrest, or 2) by transport, or 3) by court order." The court preferred to go with the plain language of the statute rather than the state's fanciful interpretation, holding that the statutory language and the language of the jury charge required that the restraint or custody be by a peace officer, and that "pursuant to arrest, transport, or court order" merely described the means of restraint. Therefore, the court granted the prisoners' motion, set aside the guilty verdicts, and found Brown and Holliday not guilty of escape.

See: Montana v. Brown and Montana v. Holliday, First Judicial District Court of Montana, Lewis and Clark County, Case Nos. CDC-2004-259 and CDC-2004-257.

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