By Tim Eberly
Only four officers have been killed in the line of duty since the Montana Highway Patrol was founded in 1935 a notable statistic considering that, on certain days, guns are almost as common as driver's licenses in Montana vehicles.
"I encounter weapons on the Hi-Line on a daily basis," said patrol officer Steve Baiamonte. "I've had days where every vehicle I stopped had a loaded weapon in it."
No shotguns were uncovered last Friday, when Baiamonte escorted a Havre Daily News reporter on a ride-along during the night shift.
But from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m., Baiamonte issued seven tickets and 10 warnings on the highways in Hill and Blaine counties, while performing six motor vehicle stops and adding 200 miles to the odometer of his 2000 Crown Victoria. Clocking between 150 and 200 miles on a shift is the average.
"That's a steady night," Baiamonte, 34, said. "We haven't really had a whole lot of down time. Some guys might put up to 300 miles on a shift. I've had shifts where I haven't put on three miles."
Those are rare evenings when Baiamonte, one of two officers stationed in Chinook, hops in his patrol car, drives a couple miles and then has to respond to a fatal car crash.
Baiamonte, along with 204 other patrol officers in Montana, is responsible for safeguarding the lives of those on the state's highways. More specifically, Baiamonte is assigned to cover a five-county radius, including Hill, Blaine, Liberty, Phillips and part of Choteau County. It amounts to 22,000 square miles.
"The things that we investigate are very specific but our area geographically is much larger," said Baiamonte, in his seventh year with the patrol. "We have full jurisdiction over anything that goes on on the highway."
Officers try to spend roughly 80 percent of their shift time on the road, which can often be interrupted by court subpoenas or writing reports. There are, however, many highway patrol duties of which the average resident is unaware.
"A lot of people don't have a clue what we do," said Baiamonte, the youngest of three siblings raised on an avocado farm 20 miles north of San Diego, Calif.
"They think we just write tickets."
Issuing violations is, indeed, a good portion of Baiamonte's job. So is investigating any crime, like vehicular homicide or drug trafficking, that takes place on Montana highways.
Officers are also responsible for performing emergency transports of blood or donated organs. Some officers are also assigned to protect Gov. Judy Martz.
Baiamonte's favorite duty is his specialty accident investigations. Having logged more than 300 hours in crash investigations, Baiamonte's focus is crash reconstruction.
"I enjoy piecing (accidents) together and finding out what happened," said Baiamonte, a 1989 graduate of Montana State University-Bozeman. "I like sifting through the evidence."
Last year, his sleuth work on the highway led to the conviction of two individuals in separate negligent homicide cases. In 1996, a Missoula man pleaded guilty to negligent homicide after rolling his pickup south of Havre and killing his girlfriend while under the influence of alcohol and cocaine. No hard evidence existed against the man but a three-month investigation conducted by Baiamonte, during which time he interviewed 35 people, convinced him to plead guilty.
"We had a mountain of circumstantial evidence against him," Baiamonte said.
Last Friday was Baiamont's first day after two days' rest. Officers work six days straight three night shifts, then three day shifts before taking a break.
"It's really hard to develop really good sleep patterns because our schedule changes so much," Baiamonte said.
He started the shift with a drive through Havre "to kind of get a feel for how busy it's going to be," Baiamonte said. It resulted in his first traffic stop of the evening.
About a quarter mile west of the Holiday Village Shopping Center on U.S. Highway 2, Baiamonte pulled over a pickup with a stock trailer. It did not have a license plate light. Baiamonte also wanted to see if the driver had a brand inspection for any livestock in the back. It is illegal to cross county lines in Montana without proof of ownership for livestock.
The driver, who was using his employer's vehicle, did not have livestock in the trailer. Baiamonte issued him a warning for the missing license plate light.
"That's a service to the livestock industry by making sure somebody doesn't transport stolen livestock," he said.
Once clear of Havre, Baiamonte clocked a Ford Explorer at 76 mph the nighttime speed limit is 65 mph going in the opposite direction. He made a U-turn and accelerated to 110 mph to catch the Explorer.
About a half mile west of the Havre Family Campground, Baiamonte issued a $40 ticket to a Great Falls man. When he returned to his car, Baiamonte made a quick note detailing the traffic stop on an activity sheet.
No quotas are set for the amount of tickets issued but "we keep track of everything we do and how much time we spend doing it," he said. At the end of each year, Baiamonte receives a printout that lists the number of hours he spent on the road, in court, etc.
"And that's how they know we're doing our job," Baiamonte said.
Twenty minutes later, Baiamonte caught another Blazer speeding. Driving 73 mph toward Havre, a Box Elder resident was issued a $20 fine, which she paid on the spot.
"We're one of only two states that takes bond in the field," said Baiamonte.
Nearing the end of his shift, Baiamonte witnessed a man in his pickup drop off two men in the Wells Fargo Bank parking lot. Visibly intoxicated, the two men prepared to enter their vehicle.
Baiamonte parked his vehicle and stopped the men from driving home. If the driver had put his key in the ignition established an intent to drive Baiamonte could have charged him with driving under the influence, even if the man had not driven an inch. Instead, he confronted the men before they made anyone could turn the key.
"If I just waited for them to drive off without trying to stop them, there's a problem there," Baiamonte said. "That's not ethical. It's not right to let them get in their vehicle and drive drunk."
At their request, Baiamonte gave the two shivering young men it was 4 degrees a ride to their residence. Leaving the vehicle with a stench of alcohol, the men thanked Baiamonte profusely before departing.
"I don't give very many people a ride home like that," he said.