Lawmakers Repeal Controversial Bill That Would Have Criminally Charged Forest Rangers

Republican Representative Mike Noel
Republican Representative Mike Noel

During a special session on Wednesday, lawmakers nearly-unanimously voted to repeal a law they passed back in March, which could have jailed federal forest rangers if they enforced Utah laws on federal land in the state.

HB155, sponsored by Representative Mike Noel (Republican, Kanab), made it illegal for federal officers such as forest rangers to enforce state laws on nationally-owned land, including issuing tickets for speeding and fishing without a licence. The penalty for doing so was a potential charge of impersonating a peace officer, a class B misdemeanor. Noel argued at the time that these federal officers were harassing Utahns by enforcing laws they had no authority to enforce. The bill passed with a 61-8 vote, with the entire Republican caucus voting in favor as well as six of the 14 House Democrats.

Soon after the bill was signed into law by Governor Gary Herbert, the Justice Department sued the state, arguing that the law violated the supremacy clause of the U.S. constitution. The Justice Department’s suit was successful at a preliminary hearing, and in late June U.S. District Judge David Nuffer issued an injunction, blocking the law from going into effect.

“We need to learn from this experience so we won’t make this mistake in the future,” Rep. Patrice Arent (Democrat, Millcreek) told the Salt Lake Tribune. “There are better ways to resolve these issues than to pass a bill that we will have to repeal and litigate in court later on.” Arent was one of the eight Democrats who voted against the bill’s passage in March.

While the House voted unanimously to repeal the law (three voted nay in the Senate) in favor of working together with federal law enforcement to come up with a solution, Representative Noel told colleagues that “While my horse is down, my horse is lame. He is not dead and he will rise again.”

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