HELENA, Mont. (March 1, 2023) – On Monday, a Montana House committee passed a bill that would require federal agents to get the county sheriff’s permission before making an arrest or conducting a search in many situations.

Rep. Jennifer Carlson (R) introduced House Bill 604 (HB604) on Feb. 16. Under the proposed law, a federal employee who is not designated by Montana law as a Montana peace officer could not make an arrest, search, or seizure in the state without the written permission of the sheriff or a designee of the sheriff of the county in which the arrest, search, or seizure would occur.

“The county sheriff or designee of the sheriff may refuse permission for any reason that the sheriff or designee considers sufficient.”

Federal law enforcement agents would be able to conduct a search or make an arrest without the sheriff’s permission within federal enclaves, if they witness the commission of a crime, if the subject of the search/arrest is an employee of the sheriff’s office, or if they have probable cause to believe that the subject of the arrest, search, or seizure has close connections with the sheriff.

To invoke one of the last two exceptions, the federal law enforcement agent would be required to get permission from the state attorney general.

Under the law, the sheriff would have the power to invoke the requirement for permission at his or her discretion.

“At the sheriff’s discretion, a sheriff may elect not to implement the provisions of this section or may elect to implement the provisions of this section for one or more specifically identified federal employees, all federal employees of a specified federal agency, or all federal employees.”

A sheriff choosing to require permission would have to provide notice to any affected federal agency.

Federal employees who violate the law would be subject to misdemeanor criminal penalties.

On Feb. 27, the House Judiciary Committee passed HB604 by a 12-7 vote.

Locally-elected sheriffs are accountable to the people and are supposed to be the chief law enforcement officer of the county. The passage of HB604 would put teeth into the expectation that federal agents must operate with the approval of the sheriff, or not at all.

It also gives the local sheriff tools necessary to protect the rights of the people of her or his county.

Mike Maharrey

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