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Lake County Commissioners to vote on PL280 withdrawal

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LAKE COUNTY — On Jan. 3, the Lake County Commissioners will vote on whether or not to withdraw the county from Public Law 280. 

In a Dec. 9 meeting, the commission passed their intent to potentially withdraw from PL280, an agreement with the State of Montana passed in 1964 to conduct law enforcement and provide other services on the Flathead Reservation. Withdrawal is a two-part process and won’t be complete until after a vote in favor in January. 

The county filed a lawsuit against the State of Montana back in July seeking relief from the state for the costs incurred by the county for this agreement. According to a statement put out by Lake County, although the state bound itself to assume criminal jurisdiction under PL280, it has effectively shifted the cost of this obligation onto the county, which costs Lake County taxpayers over $4 million per year. According to the lawsuit, the bill as passed stated that, “Unless the confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes or Lake County withdraws consent to enforcement … the state shall reimburse Lake County for assuming criminal jurisdiction under this section annually to the extent funds are appropriated by the Legislature. The annual amount of reimbursement must be adjusted each year based on the consumer price index.” 

The state legislature, according to the lawsuit, has not appropriated a meaningful sum for this purpose, reducing the amount of appropriation to $1.  

“When you go back to 1964 to the committee meeting minutes, we have a copy of them, it said that there would be no impact on Lake County. That’s why the commissioners at that time said they would support it,” Commissioner Bill Barron stated. However, as laws and problems with drugs changed through the years, he said it’s ultimately had a huge impact on the county. 

The financial difficulty is shared by the Tribes as well, Barron explained. The county used to also enforce Tribal misdemeanors until 1994, when the CSKT took that over with their officers and courts, something that costs them $4-5 million toward the program as well. 

Additionally, something Barron pointed out may not have been initially considered when PL280 was passed, PL280 gives Lake County jurisdiction over all federally recognized tribes in the nation. That means that if a Tribal member from a different reservation anywhere in the country commits either a felony or misdemeanor in the area, it falls to Lake County and the CSKT to handle it. “Talking to our jail staff, to Commander Shearer, about 50% of all the Tribal cases we have are Tribal members from other reservations,” Barron stated. “Law enforcement is terribly expensive. We’ve just been fortunate that we have the manpower and quality people we do, Tribal and non-Tribal officers, that do the jobs they do, and that the Tribe is in a financial position they can fund their portion of it.” 

On Dec. 12, the State of Montana filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit with the Lake County District Court, something Commissioner Barron said they expected. The state’s motion requests dismissal based on claims that “Lake County cannot assert a claim for damages against the State of Montana in the absence of express constitutional or statutory permission,” secondly that “Lake County cites two statutes in support of its unfunded mandate claim and claim for declaratory relief, but the plain language of both statutes bars the relief Lake County seeks and Lake County has failed to follow the required administrative process” and “that Montana law authorizes the requirement that Lake County be responsible for the costs it now seeks to avoid.”

At time of writing, no decision has been made by the Lake County District Court – where this was all filed – on whether to dismiss the case. The commissioners anticipate there will be a hearing before a ruling is made. Though the County Commissioners haven’t heard any updates from the court, they hope to before the next meeting on Jan. 3 when they make their final vote on PL280.

Should the county withdraw from PL280, Barron explained, it would give the state six months to put their own measures in place. While initial law enforcement response would stay the same, the matter of jurisdiction would be changed. Tribal members would have to be seen in a state court and incur the costs that accompany that. Barron explained the state would need to change laws to give highway patrol more ability to cover felony investigations and calls, as well as simply finding a place to hold people. The Lake County Jail already experiences overflow and struggles to find other jails in which to place inmates, a difficulty that Barron explained would be passed onto the State, along with the extensive day-to-day expenses of holding inmates. 

“It would just end up being really expensive for the state. That’s why it’s truly in their best interest to work with us and fund us,” Barron stated.

To submit a comment to the Lake County Commission, go online at:, email:, call 406-883-7204, or visit with them in person at the Lake County Courthouse, 106 Fourth Ave. E, room 11, in Polson.  

“This decision on Jan. 3 is going to be very difficult, and it’s going to be one of the most important decisions a commissioner will make in his career in this county,” Barron said. “So, we want to hear from the public. We want to get comments. There’s not a clear-cut path at this point in time.” 

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