Monday, April 22, 2024

Commissioners ask AG for meeting

| March 28, 2024 12:00 AM

The Lake County Commissioners sent the following letter to Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen on Tuesday:

We are writing today to invite you to meet with the Lake County Commission for the purpose of discussing ways forward in light of Lake County's reluctant withdrawal of its consent to Public Law 280 enforcement on the Flathead Reservation.

We have tried to keep your office posted as to the process the County has engaged in while trying to sift its way through the prospective transition. Public safety is an important duty of county government. So far as we have been able to determine our situation is unique and there is no model or example, nationwide, from which to draw any definite conclusions.

The County has reached out to a number of its current or prospective partners in law enforcement but has little to show for it: for the most part, no help, no ideas, and certainly no solutions.

On its face the relevant statutes appear relatively clear: The County was afforded the opportunity to withdraw by the Legislature, and did so. This step was partly predicated on a District Court interim ruling favorable to the County's position, which appeared to share the presumption that, in the absence of County consent, the obligation for the enforcement of state criminal jurisdiction was the responsibility of the State of Montana.

As you are probably aware, the governor's office has informed Lake County it has no intention of doing so and, moreover, intends to move forward to release the State of Montana altogether from its agreement with the Federal government as to these issues.

There are a number of challenges of no small consequence involved in this entire process. For example, if Lake County facilities are no longer available for PL 280 purposes, who will conduct investigations? Where will defendants be jailed? Will the Memorandum of Understanding regarding the practical details of law enforcement in the PL 280 jurisdiction remain the process for peace officers to fulfill their duties, or something different? Will convictions be subject to collateral attack? Clearly, the actual workings of Public Law 280 in Lake County is a complex matter, with substantial rights in the balance, private and public.

Any assistance your office might be able to afford the County would be welcome, including any insight or resources. The decision tree facing the County is particularly poignant now, 60 days out from the effective date of the County's withdrawal of consent and absent any realistic guidance. Again, we would very much appreciate the chance to meet with yourself or pertinent members of your staff to discuss the challenges ahead.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Lake County Commissioners Gale Decker, Steve Stanley and Bill Barron