Feds fight Utah over measure to curb law enforcement authority

Published: Monday, May 13 2013 5:47 p.m. MDT

The Frank E. Moss United States Courthouse. The federal government is asking a U.S. District Court judge to take emergency action preventing a law from taking effect Tuesday that would limit federal law enforcement officers' authority in Utah. Utah says it will defend the law.

Jason Olson, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Another showdown has erupted between Utah and the federal government, this time over the state's efforts to limit the police powers of federal agencies like the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management.

The U.S. government sought an emergency order to prevent the new measure from becoming law Tuesday, which was agreed to in a hasty teleconference Monday.

In exchange for the state delay in putting the law on the books, there will be an expedited hearing schedule to argue the merits of the law.

At issue is a bill signed by Gov. Gary Herbert that was due to take effect Tuesday restricting the police powers of employees with the Forest Service, National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

It does not impact agencies like the FBI or Drug Enforcement Administration. Federal employees in violation of the Utah law would be subject to a possible class B misdemeanor charge, which carries up to six months in jail upon conviction.

Sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, HB155 grew out of the frustration of several rural county sheriffs in Utah who asserted federal employees patrolling Forest Service land and elsewhere were abusing their authority.

Residents had complained of being chased down on state roads and cited for speeding under vague federal laws or being hassled at campsites in recreation areas.

"We don't want Utah citizens going before a federal magistrate for a speeding ticket," said Utah Attorney John Swallow. “Federal officers should be enforcing federal laws, and state and local officers should be enforcing state and local laws. We are concerned about the federal government once again encroaching on states rights, and we will vigorously defend the constitutionality of HB155.”

Noel, in testimony at the Utah Legislature, said the federal government seized power the state and local entities had never abandoned and their actions constituted an overreach.

In the legal complaint filed Monday, the federal government countered that it is Utah that has no legal authority to block the efforts of its agents. The suit contends Utah is violating the "supremacy clause" and that the measure should be tossed.

The federal government said Noel's measure "crosses the constitutional line" and that such a law cannot be allowed to stand.

"The state's attempt to impose its own requirements and judgment on the exercise of federal authority undercuts Congress' chosen method of managing federal lands, especially where, as here, that inference is accompanied by criminal penalties," the complaint said.

Federal agents, the government argued, would face criminal sanctions that include jail time for ensuring a "variety of public interests" in the patrolling of national forests and national parks. Simple law enforcement functions such as monitoring speed limits or checking for valid all-terrain vehicle licenses would be impeded, it added.

The complaint noted there has already been a resident who has challenged the authority of the federal government to exercise its law enforcement power in Utah — and that would have a devastating ripple effect.

But Noel said it is critical Utah end the breach of authority by the federal government.

“This is an important fight, and we need to draw the line,” he said. "I appreciate the hard work and support of state attorneys to stand up for Utah and local law enforcement officers. If we don’t stand up for Utah residents, we will lose ground and our rights.”

Oral arguments will be held June 28.

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

Twitter: amyjoi16

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