HELENA – A legislative committee passed a bill Wednesday that had aimed to make sheriffs the supreme authority in Montana, but first gutted it of a key provision requiring federal officials to obtain permission before conducting any law-enforcement action.
The stripped-down measure, dubbed the “Sheriffs First” bill, now heads to the full Senate.
The original Senate Bill 114 sponsored by Republican Sen. Greg Hinkle of Thompson Falls would have required federal law-enforcement officers to receive written permission from the sheriff before making an arrest, search or seizure in a Montana county. The penalty for not complying would have been prosecution on charges of kidnapping, trespassing or even murder if somebody was killed in the operation.
The measure drew vocal support from conservatives and tea party supporters distrustful of the government. In a hearing last month, some said they believed their sheriffs would protect them against episodes such as the 1993 federal raid on Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, or the deadly siege by government law enforcement agents at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992.
But the Senate Judiciary Committee tabled the bill after state law enforcement officers and prosecutors called the measure unconstitutional and said would disrupt important federal operations and the interagency cooperation state, local and federal officials.
On Wednesday, the committee took up the bill again, discarding the written permission requirement and replacing it with non-binding language that aims to “encourage federal law enforcement officer to use the knowledge and expertise of local law enforcement officers.”
The measure now says federal officers “should” inform the sheriff before undertaking a law-enforcement action in the sheriff’s jurisdiction. If that’s not possible, the new version says, the sheriff should be notified “as soon as practical.”
The amendment was introduced by Republican Sen. Jim Shockley and reluctantly agreed to by Hinkle.
“This bill was clearly unconstitutional,” Shockley said. “This takes out onerous parts of original bill and points out (that federal officials) should cooperate with local law enforcement.”
Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, has claimed authorship of the bill, which is based on failed legislation from the mid-1990s. He had called the “Sheriffs First” bill an alternative if a lawsuit by gun rights advocates and states seeking freedom from federal gun laws loses on appeal.
On Wednesday, Marbut said he had not seen the changes to the bill and could not comment on them, but he said he thinks it’s great the bill moved out of committee.
He declined to say whether he would push for the original provisions to be put back in when the bill reaches the Senate floor.
“We’ll have to see what happens,” Marbut said.
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