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House kills bill to expand tribal police authority

Feb 17, 2012 - By Martin Reed Staff Writer

Wyoming House lawmakers on Thursday failed to approve the introduction of a bill that would have expanded law enforcement authority of tribal police officers on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

House Bill 83 died after the House voted 40-20 against passing the proposed legislation onto a committee for further discussion. The bill needed two-thirds approval for introduction.

"Many had indicated they wanted to know more about it but would probably vote against introduction," state Rep. Patrick Goggles, D-Ethete, said in a phone interview on Thursday.

"It's not an unexpected vote. We expected for it to be a hard sell. We'll probably run it again next session, the general session, because we want to broaden the support for it with other legislators," the House Minority Leader said.

Goggles and fellow Fremont County House member Del McOmie voted in favor of introduction. Those voting against it included state Reps. David Miller of Riverton and Rita Campbell of rural Riverton, as well as Jackson's Keith Gingery, whose area includes Dubois.

The proposed bill would have addressed a void that involves challenges with jurisdictions and tribal affiliation creating difficulties for law enforcement on the reservation.

Indian Country jurisdiction creates a host of issues for law enforcement who may not have authority over an individual depending on whether the offender is an enrolled tribal member or even the victim's race.

For instance, a Bureau of Indian Affairs officer who determines a non-tribal member is driving under the influence in Indian Country can detain but not arrest the individual.

The officer must call for an appropriate agency to arrest the driver for violating state law -- and sometimes no agency can respond in a timely manner.

The reverse is true for a tribal member stopped by the Fremont County Sheriff's Office or Wyoming Highway Patrol in Indian Country, necessitating a federal officer's response to take action.

It also opens up concerns about liability for the non-tribal officer in Indian Country.

The bill sponsored by the Legislature's Select Committee on Tribal Relations would have expanded the authority for tribal police officers to enforce state laws falling under Wyoming statutes's motor vehicles section.

"The grant of authority under this section is intended to promote the safety of all users of public streets and highways on the Wind River Indian Reservation by increasing the number of law enforcement officers available to quickly and effectively respond to traffic violations, including driving under the influence of alcohol," according to language in the bill.

Tribal officers could issue citations under state laws for impaired driving and other traffic violations, in addition to making arrests for those crimes if they occurred outside the reservation's boundaries during a pursuit.

State Rep. Del McOmie, R-Lander, said in a phone interview on Thursday that questions among lawmakers about the bill's intent contributed to its failure.

"It was difficult to explain to them that the officers already have authority to stop anybody on the reservation," said McOmie, who is co-chairman of the tribal relations committee.

The problem for officers involves determining which agency has jurisdiction over a particular individual and whether charges will be in state or tribal court, he said.

"It's just that when they stop someone, for instance an intoxicated driver, they can't take them to district court. So they have to hold them there for a period of time -- we've been told up to two hours for a patrolman to get there if they're busy in another part of the county," McOmie said.

The legislative committee discussed the bill during its two-day meeting in December in Fort Washakie. Kip Crofts, U.S. attorney for Wyoming, as well as various members of local law enforcement agencies, provided input on the bill.

At the meeting, Fremont County Sheriff Skip Hornecker opposed the expansion of law enforcement authority and expressed concerns about his agency's role with non-tribal members on the reservation.

In an e-mail on Friday morning, Fremont County Attorney Brian Varn said expanding federal government authority in the area may have influenced the outcome.

"My understanding is that House Bill 83 was essentially defeated because of fear that the bill would encourage federal encroachment into the strictly state law arena -- and I am very sympathetic to that argument," Varn said.

"We have enough local control battles occurring in the county that we must remain constantly vigilant to any encroachment; moreover, we have to be very careful to not send conflicting messages to the federal government if we are going to continue to assert and protect our local control," he said.

He disagrees with the ability for non-tribal members to speed or commit other traffic violations "with impunity across the reservation," he said.

"This simply helps create an unsafe driving environment on the reservation and places reservation law enforcement officers in an untenable situation in which to operate. Perhaps we will be able to find another method for filling this glaring void in the law," he said.

Goggles, a member of the committee, said the bill would have improved safety on reservation roadways including Blue Sky Highway and arteries between Lander, Riverton and Fort Washakie.

The plan for the 2013 legislative session involves providing lawmakers with more information about the bill's intent, Goggles said.

He envisions "getting a broader-based support from the Fremont County Sheriff's Office, the (state) sheriff's association and the Wyoming Highway Patrol."

"We'll have meetings again and take some more testimony and hopefully those that opposed it will give testimony and we'll attempt to answer their concerns. This is just a start, it's not an end," Goggles said.