HELENA, Mont. – The line of people stretched out the door of the committee room, all waiting for their turn to condemn or express their fears about the federal government.
Most identified themselves as ordinary Montana citizens or tea party supporters united by the belief that the government is chipping away at their rights and abusing the constitutions of the state and the nation.
They'd arrived for a public hearing on the so-called "Sheriffs First Act," a Montana senator's proposal to make sheriffs the supreme authorities in their counties. Federal agents would be required to obtain written permission from a sheriff before conducting a search, seizure or arrest in a county.
"I've come to the point where I don't trust the federal government to protect us," Helena resident Lisa Wamsley told the panel Friday. "I urge you to support this bill to regain what is rightfully ours as citizens of Montana."
Whether the worries of Wamsley or others at the hearing would be quelled even if the bill is approved is murky territory. It would still need to survive likely intense legal scrutiny over whether it violates the U.S. Constitution.
Jessica Fehr, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney in Montana, declined to comment on whether such a bill is enforceable or how it might affect federal operations in Montana. But, prompted by a lawmaker's question, Gallatin County attorney Marty Lambert suggested there are questions over whether the bill violates the supremacy clause, which says the Constitution and federal law is "the supreme law of the land."
"Yes, I think there are supremacy clause issues in this legislation," Lambert said.
American Civil Liberties Union representative Niki Zupanic warned the bill's passage could also hurt federal enforcement of civil rights laws, such as religious freedom, voting rights and discrimination.
Similar plans in Montana were popular in the mid-1990s with the rampant anti-government angst following the sieges in Waco and Ruby Ridge — one such bill went to the governor at the time, who vetoed it. The bill's current incarnation is being debated in a state with a long-standing libertarian streak, and amid resurgent fears of the federal government and success of the tea party movement.
Several law enforcement officials, including sheriffs and sheriff representatives, spoke against Senate Bill 114, saying it is misguided, politically motivated and could harm criminal investigations and jeopardize interagency cooperation.
They were outnumbered by the line of people with a completely different view on the role of government.
Some said 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.
Others cited the confiscation of private citizens' guns during Hurricane Katrina as a justification to keep the federal government in check — even though it was the New Orleans Police Department, not the federal government, that confiscated those guns.
One man said something must be done to stop the march toward a stateless world government. Another said this bill would protect him from having to defend himself by force against federal government abuses by having the sheriff do it for him.
The bill's sponsor, Republican Sen. Greg Hinkle of Thompson Falls, said the measure is in response to a growing concern among citizens nationwide of abuses by federal officers while the government looks the other way.
Gary Marbut, president of the Montana Shooting Sports Association, who said he wrote Hinkle's bill, is the man behind a recently dismissed lawsuit by gun rights advocates and states seeking freedom from federal gun laws. He called the "Sheriffs First" bill his Plan B to implementing the firearms lawsuit, even if the appeal of the suit fails.
"We want to get it in statute and we think the time is ripe for that," Marbut told the committee.
Under the bill's provisions, any federal employee — such as an agent of the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms — would need to get written permission from the sheriff before making an arrest, search or seizure in that sheriff's jurisdiction. If a federal agent failed to get permission, the county attorney would be required to prosecute that person for kidnapping, trespassing, theft or even homicide, if a loss of life occurs.
One sheriff, Tom Rummel of Sanders County, said it would ensure cooperation and coordination between federal and local law enforcement, and be a safeguard against any future legislation that would give a U.S. agency more control.
But he was the only supporter from law enforcement.
Others said the measure is really motivated by an anti-government political agenda that is not overtly stated. They said it would harm investigations and the cooperation local, state and federal agencies engage in daily.
"The sheriffs in Montana really do not want to be pawns in anybody else's political game," said Jim Smith, the mayor of Helena and a lobbyist for the Montana Sheriff and Peace Officers Association.
Plus, a sheriff who interferes with a federal officer in performing that officer's duties is likely to face some kind of federal charge, Gallatin County Sheriff Jim Cashell said.
"I ask that we not put our sheriffs in that particular role," he said.
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