Attorneys for the Missoula Police Department responded last month to a lawsuit filed in July by the family of a police informant who claim that law enforcement pressured him into setting up a sting operation that precipitated the young man's suicide.
MPD's response details law enforcement's perspective on the series of events that led up to 21-year-old Missoula native Colton Peterson's suicide on July 27, 2010. According to court documents, Peterson drew a gun on three intruders at his Missoula apartment four days before the suicide. Peterson pulled the trigger of his gun, MPD says, but the gun didn't fire. The attackers then beat Peterson. No charges were filed.
In the wake of the fight, Peterson's parents took the gun away. That prompted Peterson to report the gun stolen. During communications with law enforcement, Peterson's mother, Juliena Darling, told police that she was worried about her son's mental health.
When law enforcements searched Peterson's apartment on July 26, they allegedly found "a snort tube with cocaine residue, a brass knuckle knife" and a substantial amount of marijuana. Peterson was a medical marijuana patient and caregiver.
MPD acknowledges that law enforcement was aware that Peterson was suicidal. According to court documents, he told a detective, "Why not shoot myself?"
According to MPD, a detective offered to take him to see a mental health professional. However, police officers "deny that representatives of MPD told plaintiff Juliena Darling that authorities could order a mental health examination of persons arrested under suspicion of a crime."
The Peterson suit alleges that rather than helping, at about 1:30 in the afternoon of July 27, law enforcement further coerced Peterson to cooperate "in a loud an threatening manner." Less than three hours later, Peterson killed himself with a hunting rifle.
Quentin M. Rhoades, a Missoula attorney representing the Darlings, says if police charged Peterson, they could have ordered a mental health screening, and in doing so, potentially changed the course of events. "They had probable cause to charge him for a crime," Rhoades says. "That's an exercise of their discretion."