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Lawmakers want county, tribe to negotiate

The crowd at a four-hour hearing Thursday on the Coeur d'Alene Tribe's law-enforcement legislation included tribal representatives, lots of uniformed law enforcement officers, county sheriffs, lobbyists, county commissioners, legislators and more. (Betsy Russell)
The crowd at a four-hour hearing Thursday on the Coeur d'Alene Tribe's law-enforcement legislation included tribal representatives, lots of uniformed law enforcement officers, county sheriffs, lobbyists, county commissioners, legislators and more. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - Idaho lawmakers are stepping up the pressure on Benewah County and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe to reach a cross-deputization agreement, after a four-hour hearing Thursday that left some appalled.

“I just wish you guys wouldn’t even be here today, and you would just sit down and come to an agreement,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle. “I don’t understand why we have public safety officers that are just sitting there waiting for a long time for another public safety officer to respond to a call. I don’t understand why we’re allowing crimes to occur in the community and nothing’s being done about it. It just really troubles me.”

After a hearing packed with uniformed law-enforcement officers, tribal representatives, county sheriffs, lobbyists, legislators and more, the House Judiciary Committee voted to put a decision off for six days on HB 500, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s law enforcement legislation, in hopes of the two sides reaching a cross-deputization agreement between now and then.

But committee members made it clear they were ready to do something: Two other motions were proposed to move the bill on to the full House with technical amendments attached, a step toward passing it.

Rep. Donna Boe, D-Pocatello, suggested passing the bill with an enactment date in 2011, to see if that would spur the county to the negotiating table. Rep. Steve Kren, R-Nampa, said, “I’m content with moving this bill forward with the amendments to give some time for some last-minute negotiations, if you will.”

County and tribal representatives huddled after the hearing and agreed to another negotiating session Friday.

“It’s still alive,” said House Judiciary Chairman Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake. “I think we’re going to get something out of it - I don’t know what.”

Lawmakers heard chilling stories from Coeur d’Alene Tribal Police officers, a local firefighter and others about criminals going free, tribal officers tied up for hours waiting for deputies to respond and take over an arrest when they’re needed to address other crimes, and a county refusal to dispatch a fire EMS crew when a local tribal judge suffered a heart attack at a school while playing basketball - even though the fire station was just three blocks away - until its own deputies were on the scene. By the time the crew responded, it couldn’t save the judge, who died.

“Criminals know that we can’t act in Benewah County,” Keith Hutcheson, Coeur d’Alene Tribal Police chief, told lawmakers. “We experience a slow to no response from the Benewah County Sheriff’s Department, causing a great risk to my officers.”

The legislation encourages Idaho tribes and county sheriffs to negotiate and reach cooperative agreements for law enforcement within reservations; if an agreement isn’t reached after six months of negotiations, tribal police officers could begin enforcing state laws on the reservation if they meet certain requirements, including being state-certified, sending all cases to state courts, and that the tribe carry liability insurance and waive its sovereign immunity so it can be sued in cases of officer wrongdoing.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe had cross-deputization agreements with both Kootenai and Benewah counties, but the Benewah County sheriff revoked that county’s agreement in 2007. Now, the tribe says its officers on the Benewah County portion of its reservation are stopping drunken drivers and being called to crime scenes, but can’t make arrests of non-tribal members, and sheriff’s officers aren’t showing up to make the arrests for them.

Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, said, “The thing that strikes me is we wouldn’t even be here if both sides had negotiated in good faith. … Why hasn’t that happened?

Bill Roden, lobbyist for the tribe, responded, “All the sheriff has to do is say ‘no.’ … He’s got all the cards. We’re asking for a fair shot, at least, in coming to the table.”

Benewah County Sheriff Bob Kirts sat in the front row of the large audience, but never spoke, leaving that instead to county Prosecutor Douglas Payne. Disappointed lawmakers said they wished they’d heard from Kirts. Asked about that afterward, he retorted, “Well, isn’t that a pain?” and walked off, refusing to comment.

Payne said the bill “upsets a balance of power which exists right now between tribal and county governments,” but he said the county remains willing to talk with the tribe. After the hearing, he said, “We’ve never left the table - it was the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.”

The big sticking point for the county, Payne said after the hearing, is that it wants the tribe to pledge not to book boaters cited for infractions like speeding on Lake Coeur d’Alene into tribal court, if they’re not tribal members. That situation is complicated because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the tribe owns the southern third of the lake - it’s not like highways, which are owned by the state.

Payne said the county won’t concede on the boating infraction issue because it views that as a form of giving the tribe criminal jurisdiction over non-tribal members on the reservation. “That’s a bright line that we never want to compromise, don’t want to blur,” he said.

Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said, “I built my career on building bridges - I don’t know what a week’s going to accomplish. Hopefully we can really sit down and get something done in a week.”

Allan said he personally doesn’t care whether speeding boaters are cited into state court or tribal court, but said that’s an issue for the lawyers given the U.S. Supreme Court decision. He also expressed some doubt that the county really is down to just one issue.

“I’ve been in this game long enough to know that we do something, and it’s always something else,” he said.

During the hearing, Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, sharply objected when Clayne Tyler, Clearwater County prosecutor, testifying against the bill on behalf of the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association, spoke of “yielding to a foreign government.”

“I have a problem with that,” McGeachin declared. “The Native Americans are people who were in this country far before any of us. … I think we need to be respectful.”

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