Judge rules against Utah law limiting federal law enforcement authority
SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge ruled Friday there is a substantial risk of "irreparable harm," with public confusion that could result if a state law limiting federal law enforcement authority is allowed to take effect.
U.S. District Court Judge David Nuffer said a temporary restraining order barring implementation of HB155 will remain in effect until mid-July, when his Friday order granting a preliminary injunction will be put in place.
"There is a real risk that members of the public will misunderstand the proper scope of federal law enforcement authority," he said, adding that harm would come to the critical relationship that exists between local and federal law enforcement agencies.
HB155, sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, earlier this year, would have taken effect in May, but the U.S. government sought a ruling preventing its implementation.
The measure, according to Mark Ward, an attorney and senior policy analyst representing the Utah Association of Counties, grew out of the frustration of rural county sheriffs who complained that federal agents were indiscriminately hassling or arresting residents by relying on state law.
HB155 sought to restrain the law enforcement authority of employees of the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management from citing or arresting offenders unless the laws are expressly derived from federal rules, regulations or statutes. Multiple sheriffs from counties including Iron, Sevier and Wayne attended the hearing in support of the measure.
"We want to make sure it is done properly, done correctly, by the right people who have the right training," said Paul Tonks, with the Utah Attorney General's Office.
Tonks argued that the state of Utah is not trying to limit the law enforcement activities of federal agents if they are acting within the scope of authority grounded in their own rules, regulations and federal statutes.
"You need to be able to trace that authority back," he said. "There may be instances where they may be going beyond that federal authority."
But Scott Risner, arguing on behalf of the U.S. Attorney's Office, said any restrictions found in a state law that would limit the federal government's authority turns the U.S. Constitution on its head.
"It is a remarkable proposition that is contradicted by decades of cases, including Supreme Court cases," he said. "It is invalid under the supremacy clause and pre-empted by existing federal laws."
Nuffer agreed and pointed to the lack of any case law that would support the state's strike at the federal government.
"I am not in the business of innovating," the judge said. "I do not depart from precedent."
Afterward, Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower expressed his frustration, citing federal employees' lack of training on state laws and long travel distances for offenders who must travel to the nearest federal magistrate's office — such as Salt Lake City — to contest a citation. Often, even though federal officers are using state law as a basis for criminal violations, the penalty is federally imposed and costlier.
"It is a big process issue for us and our residents," he said.
Despite the temporary defeat, Ward said there is hope in the judge's words.
"We are encouraged that he said state officers are not prohibited from enforcing state laws on federal lands," he said. "And we're also encouraged by his statement that this ad-hoc assimilation of state laws by the federal government is not proper. That is critical, and the reason behind HB155."
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