State v. Butler

Decision Date18 May 2021
Docket NumberDA 19-0317
Parties STATE of Montana, Plaintiff and Appellee, v. Kristofer BUTLER, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

For Appellant: Nancy G. Schwartz, N. G. Schwartz Law, PLLC, Billings, Montana

For Appellee: Austin Knudsen, Montana Attorney General, C. Mark Fowler, Assistant Attorney General, Helena, Montana, Marty Lambert, Gallatin County Attorney, Jordan Salo, Deputy County Attorney, Bozeman, Montana

Justice Ingrid Gustafson delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶1 Kristofer Butler appeals the Eighteenth Judicial District Court, Gallatin County, denial of his motion to dismiss the count of negligent vehicular assault, a misdemeanor, under § 45-5-205, MCA, for insufficient evidence after the State closed its case-in-chief. Butler raises the following issues on appeal:

1. Whether the District Court properly admitted hearsay evidence from the alleged victim to the investigating officer to prove an element of negligent vehicular assault;
2. Whether the District Court erred in refusing to dismiss the charge of negligent vehicular assault at the close of the State's case.

¶2 We reverse the District Court's order denying Butler's motion to dismiss as to the count of negligent vehicular assault, and vacate the sentence imposed for that count.


¶3 Around 7 a.m. on the morning of December 3, 2016, Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Marcus Cook and West Yellowstone Police Officer Sabrah Van Leeuwen responded to the scene of a two-vehicle crash on U.S. Highway 191 in Gallatin County. A Volkswagen Jetta had hit the back of a cargo trailer being hauled by a Dodge pickup. The Jetta sustained substantial front-end damage and both front airbags had deployed. The trailer had rear-end damage from the impact.

¶4 Butler was driving the Jetta at the time of the collision. His passenger in the Jetta was Benjamin Webster. Butler told law enforcement he and Webster had been travelling all night from Utah in route to Billings for a funeral. Butler said he had slept most of the trip but woke up and took over driving approximately 15 minutes before the crash. He said he passed a snowplow and visibility was poor when he pulled back into the northbound lane. When he realized he pulled in behind a slower moving truck, he did not have time to slowdown to avoid a collision. He denied drinking any alcohol that morning but did admit to consuming alcohol the night before. Trooper Cook observed blood on Butler's face and sweater.

¶5 Butler was transported to the West Yellowstone Police Station, where West Yellowstone Police Chief Scott Newell performed field sobriety testing on Butler. After failing the field sobriety tests, Butler provided a breath sample, which was above the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration. On December 23, 2016, the State charged Butler with four counts: Count I, driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs (fourth or subsequent offense), a felony, in violation of § 61-8-401, MCA ; Count II, criminal endangerment, a felony, in violation of § 45-5-207, MCA, for endangering the passengers of the Dodge pickup; Count III, negligent vehicular assault, a misdemeanor, in violation of § 45-5-205, MCA, for injuring his passenger, Webster; and Count IV, failure to carry proof of insurance, a misdemeanor, in violation of § 61-6-302, MCA.1

¶6 The case went to a jury trial on August 22 and 23, 2018. At the final pretrial conference, the District Court instructed the parties it would use the "standard procedure" for objections and would not allow any "speaking objections." At trial, the three law enforcement officers and one paramedic who responded to the scene testified during the State's case-in-chief. The State did not call Butler's passenger, Webster, to testify. Only Trooper Cook testified regarding injuries to Webster during the State's case-in-chief. The following exchange took place during direct examination:

[Prosecutor:] Did you conduct any follow-up investigation after December 3, 2016?
[Cook:] I did.
[Prosecutor:] What was that?
[Cook:] I did some follow-up and I determined that the passenger of the Volkswagen sustained a sprained - - I believe it was a wrist.
[Defense Counsel:] Objection. Hearsay.
[The Court:] Overruled.
[Prosecutor:] Go ahead and answer.
[Cook:] Sprained wrist

and broken rib.

¶7 When asked on cross-examination whether Webster appeared uninjured at the crash scene, Trooper Cook stated: "I can't testify to that. I don't feel comfortable saying that. I just knew that he was talking to me and answering my questions." Trooper Cook further testified on cross-examination Webster told Trooper Cook "he was okay, but I knew that oftentimes in crash investigation that that's not exactly true," but he could not recall whether Webster appeared to be injured but did recall observing injuries to Butler. He testified he was not a medical expert. Officer Van Leeuwen testified Webster did not appear to be injured. Irene Siddons, a paramedic who responded to the scene, explained when she arrived on scene "I noticed a pretty bad car accident that I assumed there would be some injuries involved in this car accident." She did not testify about any injuries to Webster.

¶8 Immediately after the State rested its case-in-chief, Butler informed the court he had a motion to make. The District Court responded, "We can do that at a break." Butler proceeded to put on his defense. Both Butler and Webster testified for the defense. On cross-examination, Webster testified he sustained a sprained wrist

, a sprained ankle, and broken ribs in the crash. After the defense closed, the State did not present any witnesses in rebuttal. At no point did the State ask the District Court for permission to reopen its case to admit testimony of physical injury to Webster.

¶9 After dismissing the jury, the court allowed Butler to proceed with its previously reserved motion. Butler asked the District Court to dismiss Counts I through III for insufficient evidence. Applicable to this appeal, Butler argued Count III should be dismissed because the State "provided no evidence, only a hearsay statement by Trooper Cook, that Mr. Webster had sustained any bodily injury. So in the State's case in chief - - when I made the motion - - there was no evidence to go to the jury about his injuries." The State objected, arguing the court had overruled the hearsay objection and it had presented evidence of Webster's injuries through the testimony of Trooper Cook. The court denied the motion to dismiss, explaining:

On Count 3, the Court did allow the testimony from the trooper, based on his follow-up investigation, which he's entitled to do, in regards to his reliance on hearsay information from Mr. Webster. Mr. Webster did testify on behalf of Defendant, and Defendant had access to Mr. Webster throughout because Mr. Webster was the Defendant's friend and was involved in the incident as well. So the Court will deny the Motion to Dismiss.

¶10 After denying the motions, the case was given to the jury. The jury convicted Butler of Count I, felony driving under the influence, and Count III, negligent vehicular assault. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on Count II, criminal endangerment, and the State moved to dismiss this count at sentencing. On Count I, the District Court sentenced Butler to a 13-month commitment to the Department of Corrections, followed by a two-year suspended sentence. On Count III, the District Court imposed a sentence of 6 months to the Gallatin County Detention Center, all suspended, to run concurrent with Count I. Both sentences ran concurrently with a prior sentence from Utah. On appeal, Butler challenges the District Court's denial of his motion to dismiss Count III, negligent vehicular assault.


¶11 A district court is vested with broad discretion in controlling the admission of evidence at trial. State v. Colburn , 2018 MT 141, ¶ 7, 391 Mont. 449, 419 P.3d 1196. We review a district court's evidentiary ruling for an abuse of discretion. Colburn , ¶ 7. To the extent an evidentiary ruling is based on a district court's interpretation of the Montana Rules of Evidence, our review is de novo. State v. Buckles , 2018 MT 150, ¶ 9, 391 Mont. 511, 420 P.3d 511.

¶12 We review de novo a district court's denial of a motion to dismiss for insufficient evidence. See State v. Ellerbee , 2019 MT 37, ¶ 13, 394 Mont. 289, 434 P.3d 910. "We review the sufficiency of the evidence in a criminal case to determine whether ‘after reviewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.’ " Ellerbee , ¶ 13 (quoting State v. Polak , 2018 MT 174, ¶ 34, 392 Mont. 90, 422 P.3d 112 ).


¶13 1. Whether the District Court properly admitted hearsay evidence from the alleged victim to the investigating officer to prove an element of negligent vehicular assault.

¶14 Butler argues the District Court erred in overruling his hearsay objection to Trooper Cook's testimony about his follow-up investigation into Webster's injuries, as Trooper Cook's testimony relayed out-of-court statements Webster made to Trooper Cook. Butler points out the District Court admitted the statements without requiring the State to provide a reason for seeking the admission of the statements and the State used this testimony for the truth of the matter asserted—as substantive evidence of injury to Webster. Butler argues the District Court's comments during argument on his motion to dismiss demonstrate the District Court overruled the objection and admitted the testimony, not for the truth of the matter asserted, but to show the next steps in the officer's investigation. As such, the testimony was not substantive evidence and could not be used to prove Webster's injuries. Butler maintains an officer's next steps in the investigation should not be allowed...

To continue reading

Request your trial
2 cases
  • In re H.R.H-H.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • 28 Marzo 2023
    ...out-of-court statements not entered to prove the truth of the matter asserted are not hearsay." State v. Butler, 2021 MT 124, ¶ 16, 404 Mont. 213, 487 P.3d 18. letter included aggressive language about Robbyn's character and her ability to be a mother. Robbyn admitted the letter into eviden......
  • City of Missoula v. Mountain Water Co.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Montana
    • 18 Mayo 2021

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT