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CdA Tribe wins policing bill vote after 6-hour hearing

Wed., Feb. 9, 2011, 7:15 p.m.

Benewah County Sheriff Bob Kirts testifies Wednesday to the House Judiciary Committee, opposing the Coeur d'Alene Tribe's tribal policing legislation. (Betsy Russell)
Benewah County Sheriff Bob Kirts testifies Wednesday to the House Judiciary Committee, opposing the Coeur d'Alene Tribe's tribal policing legislation. (Betsy Russell)

BOISE - After a six-hour hearing that stretched long into the evening, an Idaho House committee on Wednesday endorsed the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s legislation to let its tribal police officers enforce state laws on their North Idaho reservation.

Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, voted with the 8-6 majority in favor of the bill, which now goes to the full House with a recommendation that it pass.

“It was a safety issue,” Sims said. “Kootenai County has done a wonderful job.” She said testimony from Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson was particularly convincing; he supported the bill and said his deputies have worked cooperatively with Coeur d’Alene Tribal Police for the past decade and it’s served the public well.

Benewah County also used to cross-deputize tribal deputies, but Benewah Sheriff Bob Kirts revoked the cross-deputization agreement in 2007, prompting a situation that many said threatens public safety. Tribal officers, when they pull over a non-tribal member, now must wait until a county or state officer arrives to take over - they can’t make the arrest.

“There are serious issues in terms of response time that are not a criticism of the sheriff,” former Benewah Commissioner Christina Crawford told the House Judiciary Committee. “It’s a question of the logistics of the district.”

More than two dozen people testified at the hearing that stretched from 1:30 in the afternoon until 7:30 at night, and most of them traveled from North Idaho to Boise to do it.

Phil Lampert, a lifelong Benewah County resident, testified against the bill, saying, “Having state police authority given to the Coeur d’Alene Tribe will not necessarily stop crime on the reservation.” Lampert said he has “no problem with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s police department.” But, he said, “We do feel that separate but respectful relations at this point in time probably will work best for us.”

The tribe last year dropped its legislation, then HB 500, when, just as lawmakers were getting ready to pass it, Benewah County agreed to a cross-deputization agreement. Then, after the legislative session ended, the county backed out of the agreement. House Judiciary Chairman Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, traveled to Benewah County in December to try to broker a deal, and an agreement again was reached - and again the county backed out.

The new bill, HB 111, wouldn’t require the county to be involved; tribal police officers could function as police officers under state law if they had all the required training and insurance and cite all non-tribal criminal offenders into state court, not tribal court.

Benewah County Prosecutor Douglas Payne said the real problem is that the county isn’t willing to accept the tribe enforcing its civil jurisdiction over things like boating speeds, hunting and fishing on tribal lands through citations. The pending bill doesn’t address that; it deals with criminal law enforcement only. “Non-tribal members should not be subjected to citation into tribal court, period,” Payne told the lawmakers.

He said he doesn’t dispute that tribes have civil jurisdiction on reservations. But he doesn’t want any citations to enforce it. “The tribe can always sue” instead, he said, adding that he thinks the tribe will “use all available means to impose its will on non-tribal members.”

Kirts told lawmakers, “If they agree to cite non-tribal members into state court on any law, I’ll deputize ‘em tomorrow.”

Chief Allan, chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said, “I think they’re trying to move all the other stuff onto it to muddy the water. All we’re talking about is public safety for all.”

Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, testified against the bill, saying, “This is a local matter. I think we can get it resolved - maybe not right away, maybe later.”

But Kootenai County Commission Chairman Todd Tondee told the committee, “This is a local issue, but it’s a local issue that’s not being handled locally, and it’s a public safety issue.”

The committee’s other two North Idaho members, Reps. Phil Hart, R-Athol, and Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton, voted against the bill. The motion to pass the bill as is came after another motion to amend it failed by one vote.

“I’m excited,” Allan said after the vote. “I think this is the right thing to do.”

To become law, the bill still needs passage in the full House and Senate and the governor’s signature.

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