Montana Revives Proposal to Make Sheriffs Top Cops

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Attempting to capitalize on resurgent fears of the federal government and the success of the conservative tea party movement, a Montana senator has dusted off a proposal that would make sheriffs the supreme authorities in their counties.

The bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Greg Hinkle, of Thompson Falls, would require federal agents to get written permission from a sheriff before they could conduct a search, seizure or arrest in that sheriff’s jurisdiction.

If a federal agent — such as someone from the FBI or the Drug Enforcement Agency — fails to get permission, the county attorney would be required to prosecute that person for kidnapping, trespassing, theft, or even homicide if a loss of life occurs.

Republican Gov. Marc Racicot vetoed a similar bill in 1995.

At a hearing Friday on the bill, dozens of people waited in line to condemn the government or to say their rights are being chipped away.

Helena resident Lisa Wamsley seemed to capture the sentiment running through the room.

“I’ve come to the point where I don’t trust the federal government to protect us,” Wamsley told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I urge you to support this bill to regain what is rightfully ours as citizens of Montana.”

Some said the bill would help sheriffs protect them against debacles such as the 1993 federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas, or the deadly siege by federal law enforcement agents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992.

But most law enforcement representatives spoke against Senate Bill 114, dubbed the “Sheriffs First Act.” They called it a misguided, politically motivated bill that could harm criminal investigations and interagency cooperation.

One sheriff, Tom Rummel of Sanders County, supported the measure, saying it would ensure coordination between federal and local law enforcement, and be a safeguard against any future legislation that would give a federal agency more control.

Lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee did not take any action on the bill Friday, though some questioned whether the measure runs counter to the U.S. Constitution. The document’s supremacy clause says the Constitution and federal law is “the supreme law of the land.”

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