A Helena district judge has ruled the off-duty actions of a city police officer who was cited for misdemeanor partner or family member assault should be open to public scrutiny because she holds a position of community trust.
This case involves Helena police officer Britney Bridget Bergh, who was 25 in November when she received the citation on suspicion of causing "bodily injury to an intimate partner by striking him in the chest."
The Independent Record requested the investigation materials from Helena City Attorney Thomas Jodoin, who then asked the district court for a ruling on the matter by filing a petition for declaratory action.
Judge Kathy Seeley weighed the public's right to know versus the individual's right to privacy before ordering the release of what was previously deemed confidential criminal justice information. She noted these rights are often competing, and the analysis of such is the basis of many court cases across the state.
Bergh has entered into a deferred prosecution agreement on the charge, which means the case will be dismissed if certain requirements are met.
She told the court that the records pertaining to her case should not be released because it has been resolved, she returned to duty and was not disciplined, and because news articles reflecting these developments have already been published in the Independent Record.
In her ruling, Seeley noted that prior reporting by the newspaper "does not negate 'the public's right to know.'"
"Bergh is a sworn police officer responsible for enforcing laws designed to protect victims of domestic violence," Seeley wrote.
Seeley cited a 1993 case between the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and Bozeman police in which the Montana Supreme Court decided a police officer's off-duty misconduct was a breach in public trust and therefore should be subject to public scrutiny.
"Nonetheless, the Court finds that Bergh occupies a position of public trust, and, upon balancing the competing rights, concludes her 'conduct is a proper matter for public scrutiny,'" she wrote, citing the Bozeman case.
Seeley's decision resulted in the release of a 19-page police report to the Independent Record.
Investigation materials say the alleged incident occurred in August outside Miller's Crossing, which is a bar in downtown Helena, and Bergh was off duty at the time.
The report released this week says the case came to light on Oct. 17, when another officer reported to his superiors a possible domestic assault about two months prior involving Bergh and a man she had dated. The alleged victim told investigators Bergh became upset and began "flailing her arms at him, hitting him in the chest," the paperwork states.
The man told police Bergh punched him in the chest with a closed fist three or four times, the report states.
"He also advised that he was not trying to downplay it but he did not feel assaulted," the documents read. He later told a co-worker Bergh "beat him up."
Upon an investigator's first request to speak with Bergh regarding the incident, she declined to comment. At a later date, Bergh met with Jodoin and police officials regarding the allegations. The report states Bergh asked about the investigation, but when questioned about what happened, she said she wanted to speak with her attorney.
After an assessment of the case by a city attorney from Bozeman, Bergh was cited on Nov. 9.