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Suit filed against deputies, county

| February 28, 2006 11:00 PM

A woman arrested on drug charges two years ago has filed suit against Lincoln County and two former deputies, arguing that she was the victim of false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and civil rights violations under the federal and state constitutions.

Cassandra Lynn Hovland was arrested following a traffic stop near Libby and charged with felony and misdemeanor drug offenses. The case against her was eventually dismissed after an investigation indicated that arresting officer Chris Gardella had illegally searched Hovland's vehicle and falsified his report to justify the charges. Another deputy, Mark Jacobson, disclosed to prosecutors in June 2004 that he had known about Gardella's actions but had not said anything until then.

Both Gardella and Jacobson were dismissed from the sheriff's office. In addition to confirming Gardella's manipulation of evidence, the investigation by the state Department of Justice also revealed that Jacobson, while on duty, had engaged in sexual acts with a woman who had been serving as an informant in the case. Along with the charges against Hovland, the cases against two other Libby men accused of operating a methamphetamine lab were dismissed as a result of the officers' misconduct.

Hovland is suing both Gardella and Jacobson as well as Lincoln County. In a complaint filed in district court by Kalispell attorney Terry Schaplow on her behalf, Hovland noted that Jacobson received a tip on Feb. 6, 2004, that she was in the Libby area and had methamphetamine in her possession. Jacobson was not on duty at the time and passed the tip along to Gardella, who located Hovland's vehicle and pulled her over on the pretext that she was speeding.

Hovland said she twice refused to give Gardella permission to search her minivan, but Gardella detained her in the back of his patrol vehicle and searched the minivan anyway. He found, among other contraband, a film canister containing methamphetamine, but did not tell Hovland.

When Hovland asked Gardella to retrieve some cash from a backpack inside the minivan, he told her she had to sign a consent form. Hovland contends in her suit that Gardella told her the consent form applied only to the backpack, but that it was later revealed to apply to the entire vehicle. When Gardella retrieved the backpack, he placed the drugs and other contraband inside, Hovland said. Opening the backpack to retrieve the cash revealed the drugs.

According to Hovland, Gardella told her if she cooperated she would not be charged with any drug violations, but she cooperated and was charged anyway. She spent 28 days in the county jail followed by eight weeks in chemical dependency treatment and remained in a "halfway house" until her court appearance on June 25. A motion from Hovland's attorney to suppress evidence stemming from Gardella's search of her vehicle was granted on July 30, 2004. The charges against her were dismissed in December 2005.