Missoula County OKs money for lawsuit against DOJ

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MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) - Missoula County commissioners on Tuesday approved spending $50,000 to hire an outside attorney to challenge the authority of the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the way the county attorney's office handles sexual assault cases.

The Justice Department announced in May 2012 that it was investigating the way the city of Missoula, University of Montana campus police, and the county attorney's office handle reported rape cases.

County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg refused to cooperate, saying the federal agency has no authority to investigate his office.

The city and campus police departments reached settlements with the DOJ last year that called for additional training and policy changes.

In December, the U.S. attorney's office in Montana offered to settle with the prosecutor's office if it added staffers, including a victim advocate, internal investigators and designated some prosecutors to pursue sexual assault cases.

Van Valkenburg responded on Jan. 9 giving the DOJ two weeks to enter into an agreement, saying his office would assist police in meeting their obligations under their agreements with the DOJ.

Now, Van Valkenburg plans to ask a federal judge for a ruling on whether the DOJ has authority to investigate his office.

The DOJ has said its authority comes from the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which gives the federal government the authority to sue local governments over the conduct of their law enforcement officers. Van Valkenburg argues that prosecutors aren’t law enforcement officers.

The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division began its investigation in Missoula after the agency learned of complaints that sexual assault cases were not being properly handled.

Lawyers from the Justice Department looked at more than 350 sexual assault reports Missoula police received between January 2008 and May 2012 and found that, in some cases, the women were made to believe the assault was their fault while in others, police failed to obtain timely, credible statements from suspects or witnesses. Some women complained that police officers seemed more concerned with the ramifications of a rape charge against a male suspect.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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