A federal civil rights case that dated back to a 2013 dispute over access to an irrigation headgate in Carbon County has been dropped.
The suit had ensnared former Carbon County Sheriff Tom Rieger and Carbon County Attorney Alex Nixon in a disagreement between landowners. But on July 29 the plaintiff’s Bozeman attorney, Matthew Monforton, filed to have the case dismissed with prejudice, meaning it can’t be refiled.
"We are very happy that this case has been permanently dismissed without any payment by the County, or anyone else,” Nixon said in a press release. “Sheriff Reiger, who retired with an unblemished 40-year record in law enforcement, can enjoy retirement knowing that these ridiculous allegations have been dismissed and his name is cleared."
A message left on Monforton's office phone seeking comment was not returned by publication time.
William and Lynette Burgan had filed the federal civil rights lawsuit after William Burgan and his son were charged with trespassing.
In 2013 the two cut a lock on the gate of Jim Brien’s property to access the headgate to an irrigation ditch. The Burgans argued they had an easement, which was later proven in civil court. But the two were initially cited with trespassing.
The trespassing charge was later dismissed in justice court, and the Burgans asked a state court to resolve the issue. In February 2015 District Court Judge Michael Moses of Billings “reaffirmed the existence” of the Burgans’ easement based on historical use. The landowner who attempted to lock the Burgans out, James Brien, was ordered to pay the Burgans’ attorney fees and costs.
The Burgans had claimed in the civil rights lawsuit that County Attorney Alex Nixon was friends with the neighbor, Jim Brien, and had hunted with the landowner and attended barbecues at his home.
Nixon and Reiger had argued that their conduct was immune from prosecution because as public servants “lawfully acting within the course and scope” of their duties, they were immune from prosecution under state statute.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a ruling last year, said Nixon and Rieger were “entitled to qualified immunity” for their actions, clearing them of allegations they had violated the Burgans' federal civil rights.
"As the Court noted, Reiger did exactly what he was supposed to do when he consulted with Alex Nixon before charging Mr. Burgan with trespassing," said Ray Kuntz, Nixon's Red Lodge attorney, in a statement. "The claim that Nixon was motivated by friendship with the neighboring landowner was pure fiction. They didn't even know each other. Sometimes law enforcement has to act to keep things from getting out of control when people are not being good neighbors."
"We've had cases were (sic) people were shot over fence and ditch disputes," Nixon said. "It's the sheriff's job to keep the peace, and when you can do that by issuing a ticket and warning someone that they need to cool down, it's just common sense."