Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin addressed media at a press conference Wednesday night, after reporter Ben Jacobs from The Guardian alleged that Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte attacked him while Jacobs tried to ask him a question at a campaign event the day before the state’s special election.
With conflicting reports of what happened, Sheriff Gootkin said his office is currently investigating, and while no charges have been pressed against either party thus far, they are examining the facts before making any decisions.
Jacobs released audio of the incident, where he can be heard asking questions before Gianforte answered in a gruff manner, and then a loud crash could be heard. Jacobs tweeted that Gianforte “body slammed” him and broke his glasses. A spokesperson for Gianforte had a different story:
Tonight, as Greg was giving a separate interview in a private office, The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs entered the office without permission, aggressively shoved a recorder in Greg’s face, and began asking badgering questions. Jacobs was asked to leave. After asking Jacobs to lower the recorder, Jacobs declined. Greg then attempted to grab the phone that was pushed in his face. Jacobs grabbed Greg’s wrist, and spun away from Greg, pushing them both to the ground. It’s unfortunate that this aggressive behavior from a liberal journalist created this scene at our campaign volunteer BBQ.
Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna wrote that she was present for the altercation, and gave a detailed account of what she saw. Her version of events was far different from that of Gianforte’s camp. “Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him,” Acuna wrote. “Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter.” She added, “To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte.”
Jacobs backed up that story when he gave a more detailed account to MSNBC later in the evening.
Another reporter who was there, BuzzFeed News’ Alexis Levinson, said she heard the commotion, but did not see the physical altercation itself, just the aftermath.
All of a sudden I heard a giant crash and saw Ben’s feet fly in the air as he hit the floor
— Alexis Levinson (@alexis_levinson) May 24, 2017
So what kind of charges are possible here?
Gianforte could potentially face a misdemeanor assault charge if the allegations against him are true. Montana law says that a person is guilty of assault if they “purposely or knowingly causes bodily injury to another,” or “purposely or knowingly causes reasonable apprehension of bodily injury in another.” Jacobs received medical treatment, but the extent of his injuries is unknown. Either way, if Gianforte really grabbed him by the neck, slammed him to the ground, and then started punching him, he could likely be charged for purposely or knowingly causing apprehension of injury.
Misdemeanor assault carries a punishment of up to six months in county jail and a fine of up to $500.
On top of that, you have Jacobs’ glasses, which Gianforte allegedly broke. In Montana, a person can be found guilty of criminal mischief if the person “injures, damages, or destroys any property of another or public property without consent.” Assuming the damage was less than $1,500, the penalty could be up to six months in county jail and a fine of up to $1,500.
The account given by Gianforte’s spokesperson alleges that Jacobs was the aggressor, grabbing the candidate by the wrist, before spinning away, resulting in them both ending up on the ground. Even if true, that doesn’t sound like Jacobs would have intentionally caused them to fall to the ground, and doesn’t seem to rise to the level of satisfying the elements of the criminal statute.
However, Jacobs could find himself in trouble for a different reason. Montana state law says that a person is guilty of trespass if they remain at a location without the privilege to be there. The statute says, “privilege may be revoked at any time by personal communication of notice by the landowner or other authorized person to the entering person.” If Jacobs was asked to leave by someone authorized to grant or revoke the privilege to be there, he could potentially be in trouble. For criminal trespass, the punishment is up to six months in county jail and a fine of up to $500.
Sheriff Gootkin said his office is investigating what happened. He did not confirm whether there is video of the incident, but did say that if there is, his office will examine it as part of the investigation.
As far as how the investigation is being conducted, Gootkin said, “We’re going to interview the victim, we’re interviewing all of the witnesses, once we have all of that information, we will attempt to interview Mr. Gianforte. He has every right in the world to refuse to speak with us.” Gootkin said he has yet to listen to all of Jacobs’ audio recording.
One reporter asked Gootkin if the fact that Gianforte left the scene could result in charges. Gootkin simply responded, “That’ll be part of the investigation.” LawNewz.com reached out to the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office for some insight as to what type of charge a person could face for that, but they have not responded as of yet.
[Image via screengrab]