More than 25 witnesses spoke in favor of a bill Friday to require federal agents to seek the permission of the local county sheriff before making arrests, searches and seizures. But county prosecutors hammered Senate Bill 114 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying it jeopardized cooperative agreements between local and federal agents and would hamper law-enforcement efforts.

Known by supporters as “sheriffs first” legislation, Senate Bill 114, sponsored by Sen. Greg Hinkle, R-Thompson Falls, would move power away from federal officials and toward county sheriffs — “the guy that we know and the rascal we can throw out,” said Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association.

He called it a bill to encourage cooperation among local and federal authorities, as well as “Plan B” in the legal battle over the Montana Firearms Freedom Act, passed in 2009. That act aimed to set up a lawsuit with the federal government over federal gun laws and could be heading to the U.S. Supreme Court, Marbut said. If that doesn’t go Montana’s way, the “sheriffs first” law would enable the state to implement the firearms law without permission from the federal government, he said.

The bill would let sheriffs refuse such permission for the federal action “for any reason.”

“This bill ensures that the citizens of Sanders County will never have to endure or live with a debacle such as Ruby Ridge or Waco, Texas,” said Sanders County Sheriff Tom Rummel.

The bill says that if a sheriff claims that a federal agent acted without permission (with a few exceptions) the county attorney “must” — on pain of possible recall or charges of official misconduct — prosecute the federal agent for a crime such as kidnapping, trespassing or theft.

Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert, speaking for the Montana County Attorneys Association, called that an unconstitutional infringement on his job as the county’s top legal officer and bristled at the notion of being told which cases to prosecute.

“It truly isn’t about law enforcement,” he said. “It’s about calling attention to the grievances and concerns about the federal government.”

“The sheriffs of Montana really do not want to be pawns in anyone else’s political games,” said Helena Mayor Jim Smith, representing the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.

Larry Epstein, who was Glacier County Attorney for 34 years, also opposed the bill and said that between the Canadian border and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, local authorities already work daily with federal authorities.

Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, a lawyer, charged that the bill would substitute sheriffs for judges in approving the warrants required for searches and other actions under the Fourth Amendment. Marbut agreed it would.

Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, himself a member of the Montana Shooting Sports Association and a lawyer, said he thought the Civil War settled the issue of federal supremacy. “Federal laws are superior, whether you like it or not.”

“It’s my opinion that the Civil War did not establish any legal precedent whatsoever,” Marbut responded. “It established the precedent that the North and the federal government had bigger and more guns, not that there’s any legal doctrine that arose out of it.”

The committee did not immediately act on the bill.

Friday afternoon, Marbut was a key proponent of a bill that increases exposure of sheriffs and other public employees to lawsuits from citizens who claim their constitutional rights were being violated.

Senate Bill 150 “is about accountability and consequences,” its sponsor, Sen. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, told the Senate Local Government Committee. He said 99.9 percent of public employees are hard-working and conscientious. The bill would require employees sued under the bill to pay their own legal expenses.

Bill Gianoulias, chief defense counsel for Montana’s Risk Management and Tort Defense Division, who has defended many state employees against lawsuits, said the workers would get sued for doing their job, because they frequently have to weigh competing constitutional rights like the right to know versus the right to privacy. He said it would expose them to frivolous lawsuits that would be expensive to defend.

Bob Vogel, representing the Montana School Boards Association, said the bill’s effect on that sector would go beyond chilling. “More of a freezing effect,” he said.

The Local Government Committee has heard testimony on other bills seeking to move more power to local authorities. Thursday, the committee unanimously passed Senate Bill 108, sponsored by Sen. Debby Barrett, R-Dillon, which would ensure that counties near national parks are consulted on federal actions concerning large predators and large game. It goes next to the Senate floor.

Monday, the committee heard testimony on Senate Bill 117, also sponsored by Hinkle, which would force local government to request consultation on a wider range of federal actions.

Reporter Sanjay Talwani: 447-4086 or sanjay.talwani@helenair.com

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