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Bill curbs felons’ rights, but runs afoul of law

BOISE – There was just one thing wrong with Idaho legislation to ban felons from running for sheriff – according to the Idaho Attorney General’s office, it was unconstitutional.

The reason: The Idaho Constitution lets felons regain the right to vote and run for office once they’ve had their civil rights restored, a step that generally follows the completion of their sentences.

“The provision of SB 1356 that prohibits all convicted felons from serving as county sheriff, including those who have had their full rights of citizenship restored, conflicts with the Idaho Constitution and is therefore unconstitutional,” wrote Deputy Attorney General Mitchell Toryanski.

The bill had already passed the Senate unanimously, where senators praised it as “common sense” legislation. Idaho currently doesn’t allow any sheriff’s deputies to be felons.

State Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, who raised the question and requested the Attorney General’s opinion, said, “I think it matters. … This has to do with somebody’s rights, and we were being more restrictive of someone’s rights than the constitution is.”

Hart said voters should be the ones to decide who’s the right candidate for sheriff. “If someone had a felony conviction, it would come out in the election and the voters would make their choice appropriately,” he said.

Mike Kane, attorney and lobbyist for the Idaho Sheriff’s Association, which proposed the bill, said, “I believe you can make a principled argument either way.” But with an unfavorable attorney general’s opinion, Kane said, “I know when I’m outranked.”

So he agreed to have that clause removed from the bill, leaving only a provision calling for training for newly elected sheriffs. “The training component is still important to the sheriff’s association,” Kane said.

The amended bill could come up for a vote in the full House as soon as today.

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