Judge throws out lawsuit over Custer museum raids

By MATTHEW BROWN | September 13, 2011 | 3:20 PM EDT

BILLINGS, Mont. (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 artifacts and eagle feathers.

The judgment was filed in U.S. District Court in favor of two dozen federal agents who participated in the raids in 2005 and 2008.

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.

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.

Kortlander said he needed time to review Cebull's ruling before he could comment.

His lawsuit was considered a test case of the government's handling of artifact crimes, including a 2009 raid on dealers in the Four Corners region of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

Kortlander's lawsuit said 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.

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.

Judge Cebull said the vast majority of the claims by Kortlander stemming from 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.