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Judge throws out lawsuit over Custer museum raids

By: Matthew Brown, Associated Press
BILLINGS, MT. (AP).- A federal judge threw out a lawsuit claiming federal agents illegally raided Montana's Custer Battlefield Museum during an investigation into the alleged sale of fraudulent battlefield artifacts and eagle feathers.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Cebull dismissed as frivolous claims by museum director Christopher Kortlander that the raids were illegal and the agents had violated his constitutional rights.

Two dozen federal agents who participated in the raids in 2005 and 2008 were mentioned in the lawsuit.

The investigation closed in 2009 with no charges filed. Eagle feathers and parts seized in one of the raids by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have not been returned to Kortlander, who has another case pending to get them back.

The U.S. attorney's office, which defended the agents, declined to comment on Cebull's ruling because it was subject to appeal.

Kortlander said in an email statement to The Associated Press that he has not decided on an appeal.

"The fact is that I did nothing wrong, and was not charged with any crime," he said. "This was about career law-enforcement bureaucrats out to make a name for themselves at my expense and the multi-million dollar expense to the public they incurred in the process."

The lawsuit targeted individual agents — rather than the agencies involved in the raids — as part of what is called a Biven's action. Much like a civil rights case in state court, the rarely used federal legal measure allows private citizens to sue for damages against federal officials for violating their rights.

Kortlander has described his lawsuit as a test case of the government's handling of artifact crime investigations, including a high-profile 2009 raid on dealers in the Four Corners region of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

He claimed his rights to free speech, bear arms, to be secure from unreasonable searches and seizures, and nearly a half-dozen other freedoms were violated in the raids.

Cebull said the vast majority of the claims by Kortlander over the 2005 raid had to be dismissed because the statute of limitations had passed. He added, however, that even if those claims had been made in a timely manner, Kortlander had failed to show his rights were violated.

The judge said the search warrant obtained in the 2008 raid had "a rock-solid foundation in probable cause" because of information that suggested Kortlander was illegally trading eagle feathers.

"Whether or not charges are ultimately brought has nothing to do with whether there is probable cause to issue a search warrant," Cebull wrote.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

Custer Battlefield Museum | Richard Cebull | Christopher Kortlander |  |

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