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Action Update

Armed Federal Agents Raid Business And Seize Property

Jun 15, 2013 | by William Perry Pendley

Eight years ago this spring, on a sunny, clear, but windy and cold day, near a wide spot in the road called Garryowen on the vast prairie of southern Montana an hour north of the Wyoming border, vans full of armed, SWAT-geared federal agents sped down I-90.  Garryowen is a private town owned by Christopher Kortlander that features, among other businesses, a gas station, a convenience store, a fast-food outlet, an arts and crafts store, and the Custer Battlefield Museum.  The vans skidded to a stop in front of the museum and the agents leaped out as they drew weapons, surrounded and stormed into the museum, and held its employees at gun point. 

The agents were there to serve a warrant and collect evidence as to Mr. Kortlander’s alleged illegal sale, on eBay, of a cavalry uniform button.  Mr. Kortlander said he recovered the button on private land, which is legal; however, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) agent asserted that, working undercover, he sold Mr. Kortlander the button, which had a government “microdot” tag secreted on the back.  Mr. Kortlander responded that the button was exactly like numerous others in his collection and that he had shipped the tainted button by mistake.  He maintains that he has never sold buttons recovered from public or Indian lands; he knows that sale of or traffic in archeological resources from such lands is illegal.

The federal agents were unrepentant.  Three years and six months later, almost to the day, they stormed the museum again.  The agent who filed the 2005 affidavit swore out a new affidavit asserting that, while he was in the museum, he saw items containing bald and golden eagle feathers, the sale of which is illegal, and that, based on the testimony of informants, Mr. Kortlander planned to sell these items.  More artifacts were seized, including an American Indian war bonnet, headdress, medicine bundle, and shield.

Over a period of four and a half years, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Billings, Montana, repeatedly threatened to file criminal charges against Mr. Kortlander, threats sweetened with offers of various plea bargain options.  Mr. Kortlander hired a criminal defense lawyer and fought back as best he could, but the years took a terrible toll financially and emotionally.  He feared he would be indicted, suffer through a long criminal trial, and be sentenced to years in federal prison.  Courageously, Mr. Kortlander maintained he was innocent and refused all deals.  Incredibly, in August 2009, the Assistant U.S. Attorney wrote the government will “not be seeking prosecution in this case.”

In the same letter, the federal government said it was “reviewing” the items seized by the BLM agents to determine “whether they can be legally possessed by [Mr. Kortlander and the museum].”  Over time, all but twenty items—those with bald and golden eagle feathers—were returned.  As to the retained items, the federal government claims they are contraband per se because the possession of items containing such feathers is illegal under federal law and neither Mr. Kortlander nor the museum had the requisite federal permit.  Not so, argued Mr. Kortlander and the museum; the feathers contained in the artifacts pre-date the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

No matter, the United States refuses to return the artifacts.  It asserts that, because Mr. Kortlander has no “documentary evidence” proving from whom or when he acquired the items—despite his compliance with federal law as to how long he must keep such records—it need not return them.  Moreover, the United States maintains that it is not its obligation to prove—relying in part on an affidavit from a convicted felon—that the artifacts are illegally in the museum’s possession, but the duty of Mr. Kortlander and the museum to prove their rightful ownership.  Might, it appears from arguments made by the federal government in federal court in Montana, makes right.

Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF), appearing on behalf of the Custer Museum in federal district court, argues that Kortlander’s property must be returned forthwith!  MSLF avers that the federal government has the burden of proving that neither the museum nor Mr. Kortlander rightfully owns the artifacts it is holding.  MSLF also argues that, if federal lawyers thought the government had the right to the museum’s property, they had a legal duty to file civil forfeiture documents once criminal proceedings ended.

MSLF’s battle for property rights in this context and at this time in our nation’s history could not be more important.  Each week brings news of one or more local, state, or national law enforcement organizations appearing at someone’s doorstep demanding the right to enter and seize property.  Once that property is in their hands, who knows when or if the rightful owner will see it again.  Furthermore, each day brings news from Washington, D.C., that one or more federal agencies has embarked upon an investigation of private citizens for no good reason whatsoever, appearing at their homes or places of employment, collecting documents, and seizing private property.

Most Americans are unable to respond to such personal assaults by retaining the services of attorneys capable of fighting for their rights.  That is certainly the case with Mr. Kortlander and his tiny museum.  But for the pro bono assistance of MSLF, he could not respond and exercise the rights that are assured him by the Constitution as intended by our Founding Fathers.

Mr. Kortlander’s legal battle is not just about him.  A precedent-setting victory in his case will benefit all Americans.  Only an entity like MSLF could embark upon this fight.  Thank you for your support of this crucial campaign.

More info: In Re The Business Of The Custer Battlefield Museum And Store  

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