The Montana Supreme Court has denied a woman's request for the police records about her brother's unsolved death, saying the potential that their release could harm the 8-year-old investigation outweighs her right to inspect government documents.
The court ruled 5-0 Tuesday that the release of the 1,000-page file could damage the 8-year-old investigation into John Michael Crites' death.
"Though eight years is a noteworthy length of time, there is no statute of limitations on homicide," Justice Jim Shea wrote in the opinion.
Connie Crites is seeking the information to help in lawsuits having to do with her brother, whose dismembered remains were found in trash bags near MacDonald Pass outside Helena in October 2011, more than three months after he disappeared. His skull was found separately later.
The 48-year-old John Crites' vehicle, wallet and cellphone were left at his Birdseye home, the door of which was left open. A gate on his property was vandalized and his dogs were running loose.
Officials say John Crites was part of an ongoing land dispute and had been involved in lawsuits with neighbors regarding access to land near his house.
Nobody has ever been charged in his death.
Connie Crites said she needed the information to defend her brother's estate in a lawsuit by three of John Crites' neighbors. Their lawsuit filed before Crites' death accuses him of threatening and accosting them.
She also plans to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit, according to the Supreme Court opinion.
Connie Crites' attorney, Jesse Kodadek, did not immediately return a call for comment.
Shea wrote in the opinion that there is a constitutional presumption that every document in the possession of public officials is subject to inspection.
But, he added, the authors of the Montana Constitution recognized that some things can take precedence over that constitutional right to know, such as those interests necessary to preserve the integrity of government.
The five-justice panel unanimously agreed that applies to law-enforcement files into ongoing criminal investigations, saying public exposure of such files would "have a disastrous effect upon law enforcement agencies in the performance of their duty."
So Connie Crites' right to know what's in the investigative file "must yield to the State's police power to conduct investigations," Shea wrote.
Connie Crites had asked Helena Judge Mike McMahon last year to examine the records in private — which is called an in-camera review — and release only the information that was relevant to her civil litigation.
McMahon ruled against the request, saying state law prohibits the release of information once a prosecutor asserts it would jeopardize an investigation.
The Supreme Court ruled that interpretation was wrong and that a prosecutor can't trump a judge's decision to release criminal justice information when a victim requests it.
Ultimately, the district judge was correct in not releasing John Crites' file, "albeit for the wrong reason," Shea wrote.
It's the first time the state's high court has considered whether an active criminal investigation makes it unnecessary for a judge to conduct private reviews in public records disputes or a balancing test between the public's right to know and an individual's right to privacy, Shea wrote.