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Bill would limit BLM, Forest Service officers' authority

Published February 28, 2013 6:01 pm

Law enforcement • Sheriffs allege feds abuse citizens' rights.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

After hearing a litany of alleged abuses citizens have endured at the hands of federal employees, a legislative panel on Thursday advanced a bill that would ban federal employees from certain law enforcement duties.

In a split vote, the House Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Committee endorsed HB155, sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, which could literally handcuff U.S. Forest Service officers and Bureau of Land Management rangers if they try to pull someone over on a traffic violation.

"We call this the sheriffs bill," Noel said. "I strongly believe our elected county sheriffs are the ones we look to for law enforcement on our private property and on state lands and federal lands."

The bill creates exemptions for emergencies and when a sheriff has given prior approval under cooperative agreements. But critics said the measure insults the principle of federalism. Under this legislation, a federal officer trying to enforce a state or local law would be guilty of impersonating a peace officer, a class B misdemeanor.

"You're creating an explosive situation here where county officers are arresting federal officers who are doing what they see as their duty to stop and detain somebody who is violating the law," said Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, one of three committee members to vote against the measure. "It crosses a significant line of respect for the federal government that I cannot go along with."

Three southern Utah county sheriffs, however, described heavy-handed police tactics that they say have become common where ever BLM rangers and Forest Service officers patrol.

Forest Service spokeswoman Erin O'Connor said the agency's forest protection officers play a public education role.

"We are working closely with county sheriffs to understand their concerns," O'Connor said. "We have a mutual interest in keeping the public safe."

bmaffly@sltrib.com