A controversial bill that would have made Montana sheriffs the supreme law enforcement authority in their counties died a quiet death last week, but not before legislators earnestly debated its constitutionality and feasibility. Though all Democrats on the GOP-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee opposed the bill, a handful of Republicans opposed the bill also, deeming it unconstitutional.
“The United States Constitution in my mind requires me to vote this way. I know the people on the other side of the issue are very passionate,” Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor and a potential candidate for attorney general, said. “And I just feel I have to do what I believe the Constitution requires.”
The so-called “Sheriff’s First Act,” proposed by Sen. Greg Hinkle, R-Thompson Falls, would have required federal agents to obtain written permission from a sheriff before making an arrest or conducting a search or seizure. The bill would have also required county attorneys to prosecute federal agents who failed to get that permission.
Under the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the bill would have also declared invalid any federal effort to give federal agents the authority of the sheriff.
The bill was backed by the Montana Shooting Sports Association, and during testimony a string of supporters lined up to say such legislation was necessary in the face of an oppressive federal government. The bill was opposed, however, by law enforcement officials, many of whom said the measure was unnecessary and could hinder interagency cooperation. Only one sheriff, Tom Rummell of Sanders County, spoke in support of the bill.
Shortly before voting on the legislation, lawmakers on either side of the issue said they were subject to vaguely threatening phone calls and e-mails, with Hinkle implying some local law enforcement officials failed to speak up in support of the bill out of fear of “retaliation” from federal agencies.
“This thing’s actually kind of grown into something far bigger than what I originally anticipated where it would get. Here the other day I was told that there was a rumor flying around that some of the sheriffs are in fear of retaliation by agencies over any support of this bill so they were reluctant to do so,” Hinkle said. “And I have been told by some that there might be some that would deal with me in that area.”
Sen. Cliff Larsen, D-Missoula, said as an opponent of the bill he too was subjected to “veiled threats” from its supporters.
“But a couple of the messages were in the vein that Sen. Hinkle mentioned, about sort of threatening, like this sense of retribution, like, ‘You better pay attention to this,’” Larsen said. “I found it really odious that people would bombard me with these messages two or three or four or five times, and also in the context of that, kind of veiled threats.”
Shockley, a former federal prosecutor, argued that the legislation was forbidden under the U.S. Constitution.
“The situation we would have here is a federal judge would issue a warrant, and that warrant could be vetoed, in effect, by a sheriff,” Shockley said. “I just don’t think the law goes there.”
Chairman Terry Murphy, R-Cardwell, however, argued that the Supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution has been misconstrued, as was proven by the successful 1997 challenge by then-Ravalli County Sheriff Jay Printz over certain gun control regulations.
“The stories we get told about the Supremacy clause, I think are very mistaken, because it’s clearly been proven, in more than one case, and the one we all know about, with Sheriff Printz in Ravalli County, that when the federal government passes a statute that violates either the 9th or 10th amendment it is not supreme to anything,” Murphy said. “They like to hide behind that thing, that the states have no powers that the federal bureaucracy doesn’t like, but in fact we do.”
The bill failed with all Democrats, Shockley and Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, opposing it.
Here in Northwest Montana, local sheriffs interviewed said they opposed the Sheriff’s First act.
“I certainly understand the issues that lead to bills like this being drafted,” Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said. “I don’t feel, at least here in Flathead County, that we have an issue that would warrant an extreme measure as this.”
“We have a very good relationship with the law enforcement agencies that operate here,” Curry added. “That may not be true everywhere else.”
Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe agreed.
“We have a good working relationship with the federal government,” Bowe said. “I think it would just complicate things.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.