Law Enforcement

Lake County to Continue Law Enforcement on Flathead Reservation ‘Under Protest’

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
Lake County Courthouse in Polson on Feb. 22, 2017. Beacon file photo.

Lake County Commissioners said they are continuing to oversee law enforcement on the Flathead Indian Reservation after the Governor’s Office said their withdrawal from handling federal crimes was invalid.

“We’re going to continue to exercise jurisdiction, but we’re not giving our consent to do it,” said Commissioner Gale Decker. “We’re doing this under protest.”

Decker said Wednesday following a meeting with Gov. Greg Gianforte earlier this week the county will likely continue handling law enforcement on the reservation for the next several years to give time for a smooth transition to the federal government assuming jurisdiction for federal crimes, like on other Montana reservations. Federal officials say the transition will depend on approval from the Department of Interior.

The state assumed criminal jurisdiction over the Flathead Reservation in 1963 under an agreement passed by Congress called Public Law 280, or PL-280. The county has provided law enforcement through the terms of this agreement for years but moved to withdraw due to cost, an estimated $4 million per year.

The county officially withdrew from the agreement as of Monday, but in a letter last week Gianforte’s counsel said the county did not get the necessary paperwork to withdraw, so the governor was not in a position to issue a proclamation saying as much.

During the meeting, the governor reiterated if county leadership wanted to withdraw from enforcing PL 280, they would need to submit the correct documentation to do so, a spokesperson for Gianforte’s office, Kaitlin Price, said in an email.

The county still disagrees, saying their stance is they’ve turned in the necessary documents. But commissioners are hopeful after their meeting with Gianforte Wednesday they will get some of the funding they’ve asked for during the next legislative session. Overall, commissioners believe progress is being made.

The meeting was not included in the governor’s public schedule Tuesday and was closed to the public, citing ongoing litigation. The county this year appealed a district court decision siding with the state on who is financially responsible for enforcing PL-280 to the Montana Supreme Court.

Price said the discussion Tuesday centered largely around what was in Gianforte’s letter– that the governor is open to supporting legislation in the upcoming legislative session to provide limited and temporary funding to Lake County for the costs of implementing the agreement. The letter said the funding would be limited to three years.

“This would allow time for a full transition to a stakeholder-driven solution determined by Lake County, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the federal government, and other counties and cities within the Flathead Reservation,” Price said Wednesday.

This would be at least the third session commissioners would be requesting the state to fund PL-280, with the legislature allocating $1 to the county in the 2021 session and the governor’s office vetoing the legislation from 2023, saying the language in the bill didn’t have appropriate guardrails for how the funding could be used.

Commissioners said they have to take Gianforte for his word he will support legislation in the 2025 session. Decker said covering hard costs of executing the agreement up to $500,000 was on the table right now, and there might be an appetite for more funding from legislators.

Decker said the county is going to start tracking the hard costs of funding PL-280, like detention costs, medication and attorneys assigned to tribal felonies, to have more concrete numbers to point to for funding needs.

Decker says he expects the county will be enforcing PL-280 for the next several years as the state works to withdraw from the agreement themselves and transition jurisdiction over to the federal government.

“The state is of the opinion that they can retrocede in two to three years, and they want to see Public Law 280 stay in place until they retrocede and then the federal government comes in,” Decker said.

The federal government told commissioners they’re not in line to assume jurisdiction right now because the state’s still in line to assume that jurisdiction, Decker said.

“So until the state recedes, we’re not going to get assistance here from (the Bureau of Indian Affairs),” he said. “And now the state has said, ‘We’re not even going to try to assume jurisdiction.’”

U.S. Attorney for Montana Jesse Laslovich said Thursday his office is keeping track of what’s happening between Lake County and the governor’s office, “and if an agreement is reached between both parties that involves possible retrocession in three years, we will work diligently with our federal, state, tribal, and local partners to ensure the transition is a smooth one.”

“But retrocession will not occur without approval by the United States Department of Interior,” Laslovich said. “In the meantime, we remain committed to our trust responsibility to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and to ensuring the public’s safety.”

Decker said the situation on the ground is “fluid” and conversations with the Governor’s Office are likely to continue. He said conversations around jurisdiction have changed “rather quickly”

“Yet overall, nothing seems to change,” Decker said.

“When you look at the big picture of it anyway to say ‘Well, nothing’s changed since four or five years ago,’” Decker said. “But there is progress being made.”

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