Lake County initiates withdrawal from law enforcement agreement

Lake County Sheriff

The Lake County Commissioners on Friday initiated the withdrawal from a law that establishes a unique law enforcement relationship with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

In an agreement between the state of Montana and the tribes, Lake County law enforcement since 1963 has collaborated with the tribes under Public Law 280. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) are the only tribal nation in Montana to operate under this law, which states that felony crimes committed by tribal members on the Flathead Reservation are handled by local county law enforcement, rather than by federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs and FBI.

the notice from the commissioners follows warnings and litigation from Lake County officials, alleging that the state has never reimbursed the county for exercising jurisdiction. A state fiscal analysis in 2017 estimated the cost of fulfilling the Public Law 280 agreement was up to $4 million for the county, which, at the time, operated on a $12.5 million budget from property taxes.

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The notice states that the potential withdrawal from Public Law 280 is on the agenda for the Lake County Commission meeting on Monday, Dec. 12, at 10 am The meeting then triggers a public comment period, where members of the public can attend commission meetings, send emails and letters or call commissioners to weigh in. Commissioners will collect input and are expected to issue some kind of action regarding the law on Tuesday, Jan. 3.

Lake County Courthouse

What happens if Lake County withdraws from Public Law 280?

If the Lake County Commissioners vote to withdraw from Public Law 280, there will be a six-month period to allow the state to establish necessary infrastructure to assume criminal jurisdiction. After six months, the governor would then issue a proclamation saying the county is no longer part of the agreement.

If the county were to withdraw from the agreement, the state would face financial and logistical consequences, and criminal jurisdiction over tribal members on the Flathead Reservation would change hands.

If Lake County withdraws, the state — not federal law enforcement — will be responsible for prosecuting certain felonies on federal lands in Lake County. If the county withdraws and a tribal member commits a felony on the Flathead Reservation, for example, the case would be turned over to state law enforcement and would be prosecuted by the state, rather than the county.

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes

To implement this kind of criminal jurisdiction, the state would likely need to build a police force, hire deputies and establish a detention facility on the reservation. Administrative offices, buildings and new procedures would need to be established. in their statement, issued FridayLake County Commissioners said they estimate these start-up costs would cost state taxpayers at least $100 million.

CSKT Spokesperson Shane Morigeau said the tribes declined to comment.

What is Lake County saying?

In their statement, Lake County Commissioners said they intentionally issued the notice now, as the county prepares the 2023/2024 fiscal budget and before the Legislature convenes to appropriate necessary funds.

Commissioners allege Lake County “is at a breaking point” and the county and taxpayers “are on the verge of being overwhelmed.” Commissioners say the county provides vital services and yet, staff are “overwhelmed by the volume of work, inadequate facilities and crumbling infrastructure.”

“Lake County and its taxpayers are facing a financial crisis resulting from the need to adequately fund Public Law 280 law enforcement services,” the letter reads. Commissioners allege that if the state were reimbursing the county for its agreement, county tax dollars could go toward infrastructure, schools and other services.

Commissioners in their statement said the county “has become what criminals consider a ‘catch and release,’” as more than 80 felony warrants per month do not result in incarceration.

County Commissioner Bill Barron said public safety was his greatest concern.

“We owe that to the people here,” he said. “And we’re not being able to provide it.”

Barron said when Public Law 280 was well-funded, he thought, “It’s the best program you could have, personally, on a reservation.”

“But when it isn’t funded and you don’t have the money and you don’t have the jail space and you just arrest people and turn them loose and they’re committing crimes the same night, Public Law 280 is not working the way it’s supposed to now, and we have to deal with that,” he said.

A screenshot from a video sent to Gov.  Greg Gianforte

A screenshot from a video sent to Gov. Greg Gianforte from attorneys from Reep, Bell & Jasper representing Lake County, renewing their case for funding through the state to help fill a financial hole created by a law enforcement system unique to the Flathead Reservation.

Photo courtesy of Reep, Bell & Jasper

The CSKT began prosecuting misdemeanor crimes committed by tribal members years ago, which alleviated some of the Public Law 280 burden from Lake County.

“Look at this like it’s a wagon with a team of four horses pulling it,” Barron said. “You’ve got the federal government, the state, the tribe and the county. Well, the only two pulling right now are the county and the tribe. The state and the federal government are just an extra burden.”

in a February letters to Gov. Greg Gianforte, attorneys from a Missoula law firm asked the governor to meet with county officials to discuss options. Morigeau, at the time, said, “The tribes and Lake County share a common goal to improve the safety and qualify of life for our residents.

“We all know that to achieve that goal, we bring in additional resources from the outside,” he said. “We worked hard on that front and are happy to see the county exploring similar options.”

County and CSKT officials met with Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras and Misty Kuhl, the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs director, on May 3 to discuss the problem. But as of June, no agreement has been reached.

in July, Lake County filed a lawsuit against the state of Montana, asking a District Court to declare that the state is obligated to reimburse Lake County for its agreement with the tribes and pay for past services rendered by the county since the agreement was enacted in 1963. The state is required to file a response to the lawsuit by Dec. 12.

Lance Jasper, an attorney for the county, is frustrated by what he called a lack of response from Gianforte.

“I just don’t understand … why he doesn’t want to assist Lake County, why he is jeopardizing safety officers, why he is jeopardizing tribal members, why he is jeopardizing Lake County residents,” Jasper said. “And then also, the huge number of people that come and recreate (here) and Lake County exposes them to dangers that don’t have to occur.”

In a statement issued on Friday afternoon, Gianforte’s spokeswoman Brooke Stroyke said “the Legislature, not the governor, has the authority to fund PL 280. The governor’s office recognizes the right of Lake County, per Montana Code Annotated 2-1-306, to withdraw from PL 280.”

Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, who has sponsored past legislation to secure funding for Public Law 280, has submitted unofficial draft legislation for a bill that would require the state and Lake County to agree on reimbursement for Public Law 280. If funding is not agreed upon, the bill reads, the state “shall assume criminal jurisdiction over the Flathead Reservation.”

Rep. Joe Read, a Republican from Ronan, also brought a bill during the 2021 Legislature to allocate funding for costs associated with Public Law 280. The funding in his original proposal fell from $2 million to $1, effectively abandoning any attempt to reimburse Lake County for the law enforcement costs.

“I don’t know what else you can do,” Jasper said. “We tried everything to talk with the governor and extend a hand to try to figure something out on it, and more or less, have been ignored.”

Reporter Seaborn Larson contributed to this story.

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