Utah officials have agreed to disagree with the federal government over what many have called Washington’s controversial intrusion in matters involving the Beehive State.
On Wednesday, the state Legislature repealed a measure intended to limit federal land agencies’ law enforcement powers. Legislators backed off after U.S. District Judge David Nuffer last month issued a preliminary injunction to block the law’s passage.
The case highlights sometimes-simmering tensions between the Obama administration and legislators in many Western states, who object to being told how to manage their law enforcement efforts and natural resources.
State legislation HB155, known as “the sheriffs’ bill,” would have barred Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service officers from enforcing state laws. Violators could face charges of “impersonating a peace officer” if they detained or ticketed someone for speeding, fishing without a license and other violations that are not specifically prohibited under federal law.
The Utah Sheriffs’ Assn., which backed the measure, claimed BLM rangers and Forest Service officers harassed citizens, leaving local authorities – who are accountable to voters – to manage awkward PR campaigns.
“From what I’ve heard, the problem stems from an incident where a forest ranger ticketed a guy for speeding on the highway out near Cedar City,” state Sen. David Hinkins told the Los Angeles Times. “The idea was that these federal people were overstepping what they’re supposed to be out here for.
“The idea was, if they have a problem, they should contact local police or the state Highway Patrol, and not take matters into their own hands. There was just this feeling that they were out there harassing people to some extent.”
After filing a lawsuit over the turf war, the U.S. Justice Department in May successfully argued in pretrial proceedings that HB155 violated the U.S. Constitution’s supremacy clause. After a June 28 hearing, Nuffer agreed that the bill “creates irreparable harm to the constitutional order.”
On Wednesday, Utah legislators said they would try to resolve the issues by building better relationships between local law enforcement and federal agencies.
“Some of these little rural sheriffs’ offices in our state have a tough time making it as it is,” Hinkins said. “We’d like to see some of these federal agencies contact them and offer to contract for some of their patrols.”
Utah state Rep. Kay McIff said he considered the matter closed.
In an interview with The Times, he likened the situation to advice he said the Lakota Sioux once gave to explorers Lewis and Clark.
“They were the most successful tribe on the Great Plains, and they had some pretty sage advice,” he said. “When you find yourself riding a dead horse, the best option is to dismount.”