U.S. Senate candidate’s hunting-license citation morphs into full-blown criminal case

Posted at 9:04 AM, Apr 20, 2018
and last updated 2018-04-20 11:04:01-04

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Troy Downing says he didn’t falsely portray himself as a resident when buying in-state hunting licenses for the past half-dozen years – and can’t believe the issue has become a full-scale criminal case in a Bozeman court.

“It’s crazy,” he told MTN News in an interview last week. “My lawyer told me he’s never seen a three-day jury trial on a misdemeanor citation. They have doubled down on it.”

Downing also has said the charges and scope of the case against him are “politically motivated,” noting that he never had a problem until he ran for office.

But state Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials said this week the investigation into Downing’s residency predated his candidacy, and that it began as a fairly routine case, based on information forwarded to the agency from the state Revenue Department.

“The investigator began his investigation long before Mr. Downing was a political candidate,” the department said in a statement Friday.

Downing, a Big Sky businessman and one of four men running for the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, faces nine misdemeanor counts, which were filed last summer by a state game warden.

Seven of the counts allege he bought a resident hunting license when he was legally a non-resident, from 2011-2017.

The file on Downing’s case – scheduled for a jury trial May 23 in Gallatin County Justice Court, two weeks before the June 5 primary election – is already bulging with lengthy motions, orders and other filings.

The state has acquired multiple records it says will show Downing maintained a home in southern California and spent extensive time outside Montana while claiming residency in Big Sky.

Downing’s lawyers have fired back with requests to dismiss the charges – including one motion that says the portion of state law defining residency for hunting licenses in Montana is unconstitutional and should be thrown out.

Justice of the Peace Bryan Adams held a day-long hearing earlier this week on multiple outstanding motions in the case, but has yet to rule on them. 

The case actually began in December 2013, when state Department of Revenue forwarded information on Downing to fish-and-game officials in a routine report that flags possible discrepancies on people claiming residency for hunting purposes.

FWP officials say the case was delayed for various reasons, but resumed some time later. State game warden Brian Lloyd first contacted Downing more than three years later, in February 2017, to question him about the case. Lloyd wrote the citations five months later, in July 2017.

In addition to the seven counts alleging he illegally bought an in-state license, Downing also is charged with helping an “unqualified applicant” – his son – buy a resident hunting license in 2015 and transferring his license to an elk killed by someone else in 2011.

The state has acquired cell-phone records, postings on Twitter and other Internet platforms, income-tax records and property-tax records that it says will show Downing hasn’t met residency requirements for an in-state license.

Among those records is a California property-tax exemption Downing took on a home in Fallbrook, California, from 2010-2016, meant for one’s “primary residence,” the state says.

The state also may call expert witnesses, such as a Verizon official from Chandler, Arizona, to press its case.

Downing’s lawyers are trying to dismiss the charges on several grounds – including the claim that Montana’s residency law is unconstitutional.

They’ve also said the statute of limitations, which bars citing anyone for fish-and-game offenses more than three years old, should erase at least some of the charges. The state says the time limit doesn’t accumulate while Downing was outside the state.

Downing says he built a home in Big Sky in 2000 but didn’t move there until 2009, after he completed a stint with the Air Force and Air Force reserves. He said in court papers that he registered his vehicles in Montana starting in 1999 and has registered to vote in Montana since 2010.

“I’ve never had a problem in my life, until I filed for office,” he told MTN News last week. “At the end of the day, I did exactly what everybody else watching this right now (does). … I expect to prevail.”

FWP officials say they had already done extensive work on the case, including the conducting of a search warrant, before they knew that Downing had become a candidate for office.

The state’s claim that Downing didn’t meet residency requirements refers to a state law that says to be a resident for hunting-license purposes, a person must live in their Montana “primary home or abode” for 180 consecutive days, and meet other requirements like filing state income taxes, registering vehicles here and registering to vote. It says Downing has not spent 180 consecutive days at his Big Sky home, frequently leaving to travel and do business outside the state.

The 180-consecutive-day requirement is the one Downing has challenged as unconstitutional, saying it violates equal protection and due process under the law.

“The way it’s written, I would say that three-fourths of Montana is not eligible for an in-state license, if that stands,” he says. “If you step across the border into Yellowstone Park to take your family out to lunch, then that counts as being out (of the state).”