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Missoula County Jail Agrees to Settle Excessive Force Suit for $490,000

Missoula County, Montana has agreed to pay $490,000 to a mentally ill woman who was shot six times by guards with a pepperball gun.

Sunny Bartell was arrested on July 1, 2006 for disorderly conduct after police were called by St. Patrick Hospital employees. Bartell has severe mental illness and is borderline mentally disabled.

After being taken to the Missoula County Detention Facility, Bartell was strapped into a restraint chair, where she remained for two hours. Bartell was then moved to a cell.

Bartell fell asleep, but later awoke screaming for her father. Jason Sorini, the head of the jail’s Disturbance Response Team, responded along with other guards.

Sorini ordered Bartell to get down on her bunk, adding “or force will be used against you.” Bartell failed to comply. Sorini then shot Bartell six times with a pepperball gun. Three additional rounds were shot at the wall near Bartell’s head.

Guards then entered Bartell’s cell, strapped her to a restraint chair, and moved her to another cell. Bartell was left in the restraint chair for 44 minutes before she was allowed to shower and otherwise decontaminate. The entire pepperball attack was captured on video.

The incident became public after Mike Burch, a longtime guard at the jail, leaked a report to a local Montana paper. Burch was threatened with prosecution and later fired by Sheriff McMeekin for disclosing “confidential criminal justice information.” Burch died in May 2007 of a heart attack.

After details of the incident became known, Disability Rights Montana (DRM), a nonprofit law firm, began an investigation.

In late 2008, DRM issued a scathing 25-page report which found that jail officials had violated Bartell’s “rights under [the] Montana Constitution, statutes, and multiple jail policies and procedures.”

Jail staff, for instance, failed to screen Bartell for mental illness upon her arrival, violated jail policy governing the use of nonlethal weapons, and violated the Montana Elder and Persons with Developmental Disabilities Abuse Prevention Act.

Sorini was cleared by jail officials and the FBI of wrongdoing, though.

Alexandra Volkerts, an attorney for DRM, called the jail’s response to the incident “disturbing,” and criticized the firing of Burch. “Their investigation exonerated the officer who was abusive and punished the officer who made the correct moral choice,” she said.

Bartell sued Missoula County, the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office, Sorini and Mike McMeekin, the Sheriff of Missoula County, alleging violations under 42 U.S.C. §1983, along with violations of the Montana Constitution, and claims for negligence, false imprisonment, and assault and battery.

The suit was settled for $490,000 in 2009. The jail has since adopted policies and implemented greater training concerning the handling and screening of mentally ill prisoners.

Bartell was represented by Heather Latino of Paoli, Latino, and Kutzman, a Missoula law firm. See: Bartell v. Missoula County, No. CV-08-69-M-JCL (D. Mont.).

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Related legal case

Bartell v. Missoula County

Please see the brief bank for documents related to this case.