Lake County planning to withdraw law enforcement from Flathead Reservation

Commissioners say the state’s not pay its fair share and estimates it will cost $100M

By: - December 9, 2022 5:12 pm

Police barricade tape. (Photo by Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons)

Lake County Commissioners announced Friday they intend to initiate the process of withdrawing from a nearly 60 year-old agreement with the state over criminal jurisdiction over the Flathead Reservation.

In both a release announcing the withdrawal and in a legal complaint filed against the state of Montana in the summer, Lake County says that the state has failed to meet its obligation under Public Law 280, leaving the financial burden to the county.

With the withdrawal process initiated, the county is giving the state six months notice to take over operations completely, which would involve creating their own law enforcement infrastructure and police force, which commissioners estimate would set the state back $100 million.

In 1963, Montana authorized overseeing criminal jurisdiction in the Flathead Reservation under Public Law 280, which passed a decade prior in Congress to allow for the transfer of criminal jurisdiction to states where reservations are located. The state is solely responsible for overseeing federal crimes there now, as the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes has overseen misdemeanor offenses since 1994.

The Flathead Reservation is the only reservation in Montana under Public Law 280, with the majority residing in Lake County.

In the legal filing, attorneys for Lake County said they spend $4 million per year to comply with Public Law 280 and that the CSKT spend roughly the same amount to facilitate misdemeanor jurisdiction. CSKT spokesperson and legislator Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, said the tribe didn’t have any comment relating to the announcement on Friday.

In the release, commissioners said how the county is at a “breaking point,” saying it has become seen as a “catch and release” county, with over 80 felony arrests not resulting in incarceration. With the jail overwhelmed, commissioners say criminals charged with illegal drug trafficking and other violent crimes are being set free.

“We have great confidence in our sheriff and his deputies, and the tribal officers, district judges, prosecutors and staff members who conduct themselves professionally as dedicated public servants,” the release read. “They are being overwhelmed by the volume of work, inadequate facilities and crumbling infrastructure. Lake County and its taxpayers are facing a financial crisis resulting from the need to adequately fund Public Law 280 law enforcement services.”

In the release Friday, commissioners point to the $2 billion budget surplus as a potential source for the funding needed to support this program.

HB 656, passed during the 2021 legislative session, aimed to reimburse the county for assuming criminal jurisdiction, originally looking at an annual allocation of nearly $2.2 million. However, according to Lake County’s court filing, the state only appropriated $1 in the budget in the final bill.

Attorneys for the county argued that in enacting HB 656, the state recognized that the county had been fulfilling the state’s obligation and recognized it needed to reimburse the county for that fulfillment.

The bill also provided the framework for withdrawing from Public Law 280, requiring six months notice, but said that in the absence of Lake County’s services, “Montana citizens living and traveling through Lake County would face a law enforcement vacuum of catastrophic proportions.”

Draft legislation has already been submitted by Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, for the upcoming 2023 session that would require the state and county to agree to a reimbursement amount for the cost of criminal jurisdiction or the state would be required to take over.

Lake County Commissioners will take official action on the initiation of the withdrawal from the agreement during a meeting scheduled on Monday, Dec. 12, 2022 at 10 a.m.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.