Judge: Bonner County lacks standing in Festival gun suit

County v. city gun suit ends with city the winner — now seeking repayment of legal fees

By Zach Hagadone and Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff

After a year in the courts, countless hours of community conversation and gallons of newspaper ink, the lawsuit against the city of Sandpoint brought by Bonner County and Sheriff Darryl Wheeler over The Festival at Sandpoint’s no-weapons policy at publicly owned War Memorial Field has finally come to an end.

Kootenai County District Judge Lansing L. Haynes ruled Sept. 2 in favor of the city, granting its requested summary judgment on the grounds that the county and Wheeler had no standing to bring the legal challenge.

Sandpoint City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton updated the City Council on the decision at the body’s Sept. 2 meeting, reading from Haynes’ ruling that the plaintiffs had no more interest in the lease agreement between The Festival and the city than any other citizen.

“It is undisputed that such a generalized interest does not imply standing,” Stapleton quoted from the ruling.

What’s more, Stapleton added that city attorney Peter Erbland of Lake City Law, which also represented the city in the suit, is moving forward with a request to the court for repayment of the city’s legal fees from the county. 

As of mid-August, the city had spent about $90,000 on the case since it was filed in late-summer 2019. 

“This [decision] at this time concludes the lawsuit between the city and the county,” she said.

An unidentified individual carrying a firearm outside the gates at the Festival at Sandpoint in 2019.
Photo by Racheal Baker.

Sandpoint Mayor Shelby Rognstad took a moment to thank Erbland and city staff for their year of work on the case, which began in earnest with intimations at an early-August 2019 council meeting during which several speakers warned that citizens turned away from The Festival gates for carrying firearms would land the city in legal trouble.

“I know this took a lot of time and effort on your part,” Rognstad said, going on to thank the council for “standing strong and getting us to a positive conclusion.”

Festival Board Vice President Bob Witte responded to the ruling, telling the Reader, “It’s kind of what I personally expected and was hoping for at this time. Let’s just move on.”

When organizers canceled the 2020 Festival due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Haynes asked counsel to file briefings on the “narrow issue” of whether that made the case moot. Attorneys for the county and city traded oral arguments on standing and mootness in court Aug. 25. 

In his ruling issued Sept. 2, Haynes wrote that “a declaratory judgment can only be rendered in a case where an actual or justiciable controversy exists,” and went on to describe how the county was not able to prove the standing necessary to prompt a ruling.

Haynes characterized plaintiff Wheeler’s argument that he has standing due to his statutory duty to enforce Idaho law as “unpersuasive.”

“Plaintiff’s duty to enforce Idaho law is exercised with a significant amount of discretion. An Idaho law enforcement officer presented with an allegation that a crime has been committed can investigate the accusation for possible referral to an appropriate prosecuting agency, can issue a citation, can determine that no crime has been committed, or can effect an arrest,” Haynes stated. “A declaration by this Court as to whether a private entity leasing public property can legally or constitutionally bar the possession of firearms at their event does not change any of the Plaintiff’s options.”

The judge noted that Wheeler’s “claim of exposure to liability unless this Court decides the issue before it is, at best, vague and speculative,” and said the argument that allowing the gun ban to go on would lead to a potentially violent “affray” stemming from pro-gun protesters outside the Festival gates could go either way — the sheriff should be prepared for anti-gun rights protesters to gather just the same if the ruling were to be in the county’s favor.

“In actuality, law enforcement should always be equipped and trained for any crowd control eventualities, regardless of the reason,” Haynes stated. “Plaintiff’s fears of future harm are without merit and do not confer standing.”

Reached for comment shortly after news of the ruling broke Sept. 2, Bonner County Board of Commissioners Chairman Dan McDonald told the Reader in an email, “My understanding is it was due to a technicality as there is no Festival this year.” 

“Instead of looking at the merits of the law itself and helping both the city and county understand an interpretation of said law, the case is decided on a technicality,” he wrote. “That helps neither the city, the county, nor the citizens affected.”

To date, following an invoice of $3,024 payable by the city to legal counsel Lake City Law on Sept. 2, the case has racked up expenses in excess of $200,000 from both parties since it entered the court system last summer. Based on public records, Bonner County reported Aug. 6 that it had paid $117,631 in legal fees alone to New Orleans-based Davillier Law Group for work on the case.

Asked to clarify his statement about the case turning on a “technicality” — when the judge ruled specifically that the county and sheriff had no standing — McDonald said that he hadn’t yet read the filing and was “getting the info second hand.”

“Regardless, without looking at the merits of the law and providing a judgement, defining the law, we are all stuck in limbo,” he wrote, alluding to the county’s position that Idaho law does not give a municipal government authority to regulate firearms on public property, and thus cannot transfer that power to a third-party via a lease agreement. 

Wheeler’s contention had been that lacking clarity on the legality of the weapons ban, his office could not adequately plan for a law enforcement response to alleged violations.

McDonald added in a follow up email that, “I’m hoping the Legislature will step up and make a clarification of their intent, as that’s what’s really in dispute here.”

As the Idaho Legislature recently wrapped up a special session related to COVID-19 response Aug. 26, it was immediately unclear whether the issue of so-called “firearms preemption” will make it on the agenda when legislators reconvene in Boise in January for the 2021 general session.

Meanwhile, another lawsuit is only beginning to work its way through the legal system, also challenging the legality of The Festival’s no-weapons policy on leased public land.

“This Court is aware of parallel litigation brought by individual citizens who were denied entry into the 2019 Festival because of their demand to do so while having a firearm on their person,” the ruling stated. “Whether these individuals have standing and the issue of mootness remains to be seen based on future possible motion practice in that lawsuit.”

Sagle resident Scott Herndon is one of the principal actors in the “parallel litigation,” brought this summer in conjunction with Washington- and Boise-based gun rights advocacy groups. He was also one of the individuals turned away from The Festival gates in 2019 for carrying firearms, triggering the county’s uit.

Herndon told the Reader that the Sept. 2 ruling focused only on “the very narrow question of whether the county and the sheriff had standing.”

“Our suit is only parallel in that it involves the same set of circumstances. But unlike the county, our standing is not in question, nor is the harm nor justiciability in question,” he wrote in an email. “Ours will be proceeding to answer the core legal questions raised in our complaint and won’t be derailed by issues of standing.”

That case isn’t expected to come before a judge until mid-February 2021.

In a news release issued late Sept. 2, the city stated that it is “pleased with the decision of Judge Haynes. It has been the position of the City from the very beginning that the County and Sheriff Wheeler did not have standing in this matter.”

“The County and Sheriff Wheeler have continually misrepresented the policy of the City and statements made by city officials throughout this proceeding,” the city statement continued. “The Sandpoint Police Department did not enforce the gun ban during the Festival and the City of Sandpoint does not have a policy restricting the public from carrying guns on public property. 

“Furthermore, the suggestion that members of our community on either side of this disagreement would resort to a violent protest or ‘riot’ at a possible future Festival at Sandpoint production is offensive. That is not who we are.”

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