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Legislator pitches plan for second state crime lab in Billings

HELENA — Eastern Montana prosecutors and law officers Tuesday made an appeal to state lawmakers to fund a satellite state crime lab in Billings, saying time spent waiting for results from the main state lab in Missoula is costing money and hurting law enforcement efforts.

Rep. Dale Mortensen, R-Billings, said it’s a 1,040-mile round trip from Glendive to Missoula for officers who may have to travel there with evidence.

“That’s a lot of windshield time for our law enforcement officers,” he told the House Appropriations Committee. “It creates inefficiencies by forcing them to spend more time traveling and less time doing their jobs.”

Mortensen is sponsoring House Bill 512, which appropriates $5.8 million to build a satellite crime lab in Billings, or up to $340,000 to secure a leased facility. The measure also includes $1.8 million to fund new personnel at the facility.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill — although members had plenty of questions about the cost and whether it might be too high.

Rep. Kelly McCarthy, D-Billings — a member of the committee — said he helped put together the numbers in the bill, and that it includes $1.7 million for a new morgue and $4.1 million for a new lab building, “should they choose to build (them).”

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He also said if construction is approved, it would take two years to build the new facilities, so full funding for new personnel may not be needed in the next biennium.

Rep. Kim Dudik, D-Missoula, also asked whether delays in obtaining analysis of evidence could be solved by expanding services at the existing Forensic Sciences Laboratory in Missoula.

Mike Milburn, deputy chief of staff for the Justice Department, which oversees the state crime lab, said more funding for the Missoula facility would reduce backlogs or otherwise speed up work at the lab.

A Yellowstone County deputy attorney, however, said having a satellite lab in Billings would make it much more efficient to analyze evidence from an increasing amount of drug crime and other crimes in Eastern Montana, in part stemming from oil development along the Montana-North Dakota border.

“The Bakken (oil formation) is going to continue to spill out drug cases,” said Dan Schwarz, chief deputy civil attorney for Yellowstone County. “That’s the way it is, folks, because drugs follow money. And right now, there is a lot of money coming out of Eastern Montana.”

The Yellowstone County Detention Facility, which has 276 beds, is now holding anywhere from 450 to 500 people, and part of the reason is because suspects are held for months while prosecutors wait for analysis on drug or other evidence, he said.

Ed Bartlett, a lobbyist representing the city of Billings and the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce, said the lab would not duplicate services in Missoula and is a proposal supported by the current attorney general, Tim Fox, and attorneys general before him.


This article was written by Mike Dennison from The Montana Standard, Butte and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.