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Posts published in “Day: February 3, 2023”

Making it work

Some years ago, I asked a legislative bill researcher what seemed like a simple question: How many felony offenses are on the books in Idaho, and what are they?

He had no idea. His best suggestion was to try a search through the Idaho Code - the state law - but that didn’t work very well either. The number seemed to be in the neighborhood of “several hundred,” more or less (probably more). Because of the way many legal requirements relate to each other, coming up with a definite number probably is impossible.

Many activities (or failure to perform them) are felonies, and if you’re certain you’ve never committed a felony, or at least not recently … don’t be too sure.

Felonies, of course, are only a piece of the legal picture, since misdemeanors and local ordinances figure in too, along with federal law, all of it relevant to law enforcement.

Law enforcement in Idaho is, definitionally, supposed to enforce the law - but as a matter of fact and reality, not all of it. How could it? Far more offenses can be found on the books than even the best-staffed, best-funded, best-trained enforcement agency possibly could enforce. Even enforcement of local ordinances, for example, often is “complaint driven,” with officers becoming involved when someone becomes a squeaky enough wheel.

All this should come as no surprise to most people, but evidently it may to Idaho Representative Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa, the sponsor of House Bill 22. Following up on an apparently discarded effort to penalize any city that fails vigorously to enforce the state’s new abortion law, this one is broader: “This bill withholds sales and use tax revenue distributions to city or county governments that take actions, such as proclamations, to refuse to enforce any felony listed in Idaho criminal code. Some local governments may take it upon themselves to defy state law by refusing to enforce Idaho criminal codes. This bill allows a remedy to prevent ongoing or future lawlessness.” It doesn’t specify abortion laws, but, well, it doesn’t really have to.  The point is evident enough.

What it would do is another matter. How would this actually work as a matter of practice? You could ask, to start, who in the state’s financial machinery would determine whether a specific local government is “refusing to enforce” when it comes to state felonies? Any felonies or just some? Are they only supposed to pay attention to abortion law but ignore, say, other offenses? (Whatever they are.)

The bill does refer to a trigger: “Any mayor, council, board of commissioners, or any other governing body of a city or county governmental entity that issues an ordinance, resolution, executive order, proclamation, or similar official directive refusing to investigate or enforce …” So would a local government skirt the law by simply not posting a directive on paper (or website)? (That would seem a pretty easy legislature-defeating workaround.) Will managerial conversations be reportable? To whom? Who makes the determination of whether a refusal to enforce something is actually happening?

Someone at the legislature might want to check in with their local police.

Ask a cop - as I occasionally have over the years - how they choose to budget their time and effort, considering the immense range of possible things they might usefully be doing, and you’ll likely get something like the answer I generally have:

Priority usually goes to public safety and protection of people and property. Apart from some standard operations (such as traffic enforcement), much of the rest is, like a lot of government enforcement, complaint-driven. There are lots of legal violations for which a law officer might act, but their work would be an exercise in chaos if there were no priorities. And as you may have heard, if you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing.

Presumably what Skaug, and probably other Idaho legislators, would like to see is Idaho law enforcement putting enforcement of the abortion law somewhere around the top of their priority list. If they did that, something else - violent crime or traffic hazards, say - might be moved down the list. And there’s the question of how, exactly, police would go about enforcing the abortion law. (Would they make the rounds of clinics or doctor’s offices to find out who’s there and for what?)

All of which could, prospectively, make for an interesting debate on the floors of the Idaho Legislature, and beyond.