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Commissioners wait for court to decide fate of Public Law 280

by KRISTI NIEMEYER
Editor | June 1, 2023 12:00 AM

Public comments ranged from frustration with Gov. Greg Gianforte to a few mentions of vigilante justice during a crowded public meeting last Thursday, as Lake County Commissioners considered their next move in the ongoing saga of Public Law 280.

After nearly 90 minutes, the commissioners voted unanimously to postpone a decision to withdraw from the agreement and continue overseeing felony law enforcement for both tribal and non-tribal members, pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed in District Court last year.

The law enforcement agreement, in place since 1965, gives the county jurisdiction over felonies involving tribal members on the Flathead Reservation. But commissioners say the cost, estimated at $5 million annually, is too much for local taxpayers to bear and have asked the state to pick up the tab.

The Legislature passed a temporary fix that would have allocated $5 million over the next two years, while representatives from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Lake County, the attorney general and governor’s offices worked on a more comprehensive funding solution. The governor vetoed the bill, a move the drew the ire of all three commissioners and the three legislators who attended the meeting, and labored throughout the session to gain support for a legislative solution.

Asked if there were enough votes to override the veto, Sen. Mark Noland of Bigfork replied that at this point, there aren’t. “We had a hard time just getting it through,” he said. “Some people just didn’t get it.”

Meanwhile, a civil case is making its way through District Court, which could determine whether the state is responsible for funding PL 280. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for July 19.

Sheriff Don Bell and Lake County Attorney James Lapotka both voiced their support for PL 280 at last week’s meeting and outlined their vision of what would happen if the federal government – specifically the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Bureau of Indian Affairs – assumed felony jurisdiction over tribal members, as is the approach on Montana’s other reservations. Under the Major Crime Act, Lapotka said the FBI and BIA officers would be the investigative agency and the U.S. Attorney’s office would prosecute defendants in federal court.

Under Montana law, the threshold for felony burglary is $1,500; for federal law enforcement to investigate, it’s at least $100,000. If minor felonies committed by tribal members were no longer investigated by the county, “it would get to be a rodeo out there,” predicted Bell.

“Before Public Law 280 they called this the lawless land. We do not want that,” he added. “If crime goes way high how do you think your property values are going to be affected?”

Lapotka noted that the feds also aren’t inclined to investigate drug crimes that don’t involve huge quantities of meth, heroin or fentanyl, rape, or assault with a weapon.

Without Public Law 280, “There’s nothing in the middle,” he said. “You’d get a system where the Tribes handle misdemeanors, the federal government would do the worst of felonies and there would be a total donut hole in the middle where you’d get ignored.”

Lapotka also said he’s had no meaningful conversation with the state about what would happen if the county pulls out of policing tribal members.

“The state needs to get serious about what they’re going to do if we stop doing this and because they’re not, it’s you all who are going to hurt in the meantime,” he said. “I can tell you, I’m not going to step down until I know who’s going to step up.”

Some members of the audience encouraged the commissioners to withdraw from the agreement and let the state and federal government pick up the pieces.

“The governor and lieutenant governor couldn’t care less about what happens to the people of Lake County and they’ve demonstrated it over and over and over again,” said Tracy Sharp. Regarding Public Law 280, he added, “It’s time to stop falling in love with this thing and tear the band-aid off if we don’t get support.”

Frank Mutch told commissioners, “what I heard today is kind of what I had for breakfast, which was waffles.”

“I’m not convinced Public Law 280 is so great – we have the highest crime rate in the state consistently,” he added.

Pastor Micah Robertson of Ronan accused county officials of “fear-mongering” about the impact of withdrawing from Public Law 280. “The judicial system is complicating things. I’m a preacher and I’m a Christian and the Bible says if a man is caught breaking through, trying to steal, you kill him and you are innocent,” he said. “God does not put any dollar amount on how long I have to wait before I take that man’s life.”

Rep. Joe Read of Ronan, who co-sponsored the first version of House Bill 479 – the legislation vetoed by the governor – encouraged the commissioners to postpone their decision on whether to withdraw until after the judge rules on whether or not the state has a financial responsibility to pay for costs incurred under Public Law 280.

As a member of the Legislative State-Tribal Interim Committee for the past four sessions, Read said there’s a level of crime on reservations that are not subject to PL 280 “you can’t believe,” and warned that if the county pulls out, “the hole in policing that’s going to appear is going to shock us all.”

“Let’s go to court and let’s fight this out – let’s not walk away too soon,” he advised. “I think the governor walked into a buzz saw when he vetoed that bill – he’s not going to get off cheap.”

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