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Feds, Utah battle over police powers on public lands

Published June 14, 2013 5:05 pm

Rep. Mike Noel's bill targets federal employees who try to enforce law that is sheriffs' domain.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

U.S. attorneys say in written arguments filed Friday that a new Utah law is unconstitutional because it attempts to stop federal officials from enforcing federal rules — which may happen to mirror state laws such as speed limits — on federal lands.

But the state, and allies from local counties and sheriffs, argue in briefs that HB155 stays within court precedents that assume "the historic police powers of the states were not to be superseded" by federal law unless Congress clearly acts to invoke federal supremacy. They say it never did when it comes to enforcing state laws on federal lands.

At issue is HB155, sponsored by Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, that makes it punishable by a $1,000 fine and six months in jail for federal employees who are not certified law enforcement officers to enforce any state law in Utah.

Noel argued that Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service officials sometimes enforce traffic laws, which he said should be left to local sheriffs.

Federal Judge David Nuffer has already signed a temporary resting order blocking the law from taking effect, but attorneys from all sides have been filing arguments about whether he should issue a more permanent preliminary injunction as the case moves forward.

Federal attorneys argued Friday that a "state may not restrict the federal government's exercise of authority on federal land. Yet that is precisely what the state of Utah has attempted."

The Utah Attorney General's Office argued in a brief that Congress never specifically gave federal officials authority to enforce Utah laws, so they say HB155 is within constitutional bounds. A friend-of-the-court brief by the Utah Association of Counties and the Utah Sheriffs' Association agreed with that argument.

But federal attorneys said Congress gave federal land agencies "broad authority over federal lands, including the authority to issue regulations necessary to manage and protect those lands" — including adopting rules that may mirror state and local laws.

"When a federal law enforcement officer arrests an individual for the violation of a federal regulation, the officer is enforcing federal law, even if the regulation incorporates or adopts specific standards from state laws," federal attorneys argue.

They added that Congress has charged land agencies "with adopting regulations to implement specific statutes, and yet Utah now purports to deny the federal government the authority to enforce those regulations," which they said makes the law unconstitutional.