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County initiates withdrawal from law enforcement agreement

by KRISTI NIEMEYER
Editor | November 23, 2023 12:00 AM

The Lake County Commissioners sent a certified letter to Gov. Greg Gianforte Monday, formally announcing their intention to withdraw from Public Law 280, the nearly 60-year-old agreement that gives the state jurisdiction over felonies committed by tribal members on the reservation. 

It’s a move that promises to reshape law enforcement in Lake County.

At the same time, commissioners announced their decision to appeal a recent District Court ruling in the matter to the Montana Supreme Court.

Lake County filed the lawsuit in July 2022, alleging the state owed the county for “past and present costs” incurred in providing law enforcement on the Flathead Reservation, and seeking a judgement establishing the state’s obligation to reimburse Lake County going forward.  

While Judge Amy Eddy appeared sympathetic to the county’s predicament, she ruled that under state law, only the legislature could provide a financial remedy to the situation.

The original agreement was forged in the 1960s between the state, county and Tribes, and gave the state “criminal jurisdiction over Indians and Indian territory of the Flathead Indian Reservation,” and members of any federally recognized tribes who commit crimes within its boundaries. Since Lake County encompasses the largest portion of reservation lands, it shoulders the bulk of law enforcement duties.

The agreement was altered in 1994 when the Tribes assumed misdemeanor jurisdiction over tribal members.

Faced with an uptick in criminal activity and incarceration in recent years and a limited tax base, the county had sought reimbursement from the state for the additional costs of investigating and prosecuting felonies and housing tribal inmates.

Attempts to find a legislative remedy were thwarted in 2021 when the Legislature acknowledged that the state had a responsibility to help pay for administration of Public Law 280 “to the extent funds are appropriated,” and then allocated $1.

During that same session, the Legislature enacted a provision allowing the county to withdraw its “consent to enforce criminal jurisdiction on behalf of the State of Montana over the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.” The county commissioners are first required to consult with tribal officials before passing a resolution.

Two years later, in the 2023 session, legislators passed a law that would have allocated $2.5 million a year for the next two years and established a working group of tribal, state and county representatives to examine the issue and make recommendations to the governor. It was vetoed last May by Gianforte.

The resolution to withdraw from Public Law 280, sent to the governor Monday, was originally passed by commissioners Jan. 3, 2023, but its implementation was postponed pending the outcome of the most recent legislative session and the lawsuit filed against the state.

This week, unable to find either a legislative or a legal remedy, the commissioners moved forward with their resolution to withdraw consent to enforce criminal jurisdiction on behalf of the State of Montana over tribal members. Under the law passed in 2021, the governor now has six months to issue a proclamation to that effect.

Commissioner Gale Decker said Monday that the county hopes to meet soon with the Tribes and other local jurisdictions to discuss potential problems.

“Transition out of Public Law 280 is an unknown with many unanswered questions,” he added.


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