Law Enforcement

Feds Meet with Lake County Commission on Criminal Jurisdiction

The state assumed criminal jurisdiction over the Flathead Reservation in 1963 under an agreement passed by Congress called Public Law 280

By NICOLE GIRTEN, Daily Montanan

Federal agencies would only focus on the “big fish” cases if they took over felony jurisdiction on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

That’s according to Montana’s U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich, who met with Lake County Commissioners on Tuesday to discuss possible paths forward if the federal government assumes jurisdiction on the reservation. Laslovich said the federal government taking over would mean fewer cases get prosecuted and more “menace” within the community.

The state assumed criminal jurisdiction over the Flathead Reservation in 1963 under an agreement passed by Congress called Public Law 280. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have handled misdemeanor offenses since the 1990s. Other tribes in the state are overseen by the federal government.

The county has provided law enforcement through the terms of this agreement for years, but recently has said it cannot afford to keep spending $4 million annually doing so. Gov. Greg Gianforte, who vetoed a 2023 bill that would have funded the effort, most recently told commissioners the only tool left for him is to pull out from the agreement entirely.

The county is set to withdraw from the agreement May 20, with the governor expected to dissolve the agreement entirely shortly after. The federal government would then get the proverbial jurisdiction “hot potato,” and Laslovich said with limited resources, the feds would prosecute a fraction of the cases the county does currently.

The CSKT did not actively participate in the meeting and has declined previous requests for comment.

Commissioner Bill Barron asked Laslovich if Lake County would be a “lawless land” without the agreement, to which Laslovich said, “I think the situation worsens.”

Laslovich said the people who would be prosecuted under the agreement, but not by the federal government, would roam free in the community – and that could mean trouble.

“They’re going to be a menace and terrorists in this community for lack of a better word,” Laslovich said. “I think that’s a real concern.”

Commissioners expressed, as they have previously, they would like to stay in the agreement, but just can’t afford it – and made them have to decide between paving roads and public safety. They asked Laslovich if the federal government would be able to fund the agreement, to which Laslovich said they could ask, but it was very unlikely.

“I wouldn’t anticipate a bunch of cash being thrown on your desk,” Laslovich said.

Laslovich said the federal prosecutors in the state are already working at-capacity.

“We don’t have additional positions that we can just grab from the tree to prosecute those cases,” he said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Weldon explained how jurisdiction would work for Natives and non-Natives on the reservation assuming the federal government takes over.

Weldon said if a victim or a perpetrator fell into the office’s classification for an “Indian person,” the federal government would prosecute the case. If the case involved a Native and non-Native person, the feds can also prosecute under the General Crimes Act.

Lake County Attorney James Lapotka said what was “glaring” to him about the new system is there could be a homicide defendant caught red handed who under the federal indictment system would not be in custody until they’re indicted with the grand jury process – as opposed to arrested and taken to jail and and prosecuted immediately.

“I got two of those people in jail right now, and neither one of them should have been allowed to be outside for one hour before they got cuffs put on them,” Lapotka said. “In the federal system that’s not as swift.”

Laslovich said that was a fair concern, but that his office would be alerted by partners if there was a murderous person or someone violent in the community, they would be able to take action without an indictment, but also noted the number of obligations already on the office.

Laslovich said he is worried about whether federal partners like the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Marshals Service, Drug Enforcement Administration will be able to dedicate officers’ time to this region.

Certainty on what the parties involved – the state, the county, the tribe – was top of mind for Laslovich in terms of how to plan moving forward.

“I just want to emphasize, we’ll do what we need to do to have your backs,” Laslovich said. “I don’t want to over promise here and want to just shoot straight with you about what it is we’re facing and what you’ll be facing.”

This story originally appeared in the Daily Montanan, which can be found online at dailymontanan.com.