Judge denies county motion to halt Festival gun suit

City files motion for summary judgement

By Lyndsie Kiebert
Reader Staff

Kootenai County District Court Judge Lansing L. Haynes denied a motion Feb. 25 from Bonner County to stay its lawsuit against the city of Sandpoint, which challenges the Festival at Sandpoint’s weapons ban. 

The Bonner County Courthouse. Courtesy photo.

Haynes denied the motion at a status conference Feb. 25, rejecting a request by the county to put the case on hold for 45 days. Legal counsel for the county requested the stay in order to wait and see whether the current Idaho legislative session would address the issue of how firearms preemption interacts with lease law.

Representing the county, Davillier Law Group attorney Amy Clemmons said that continuing with the case while the issue is being discussed at the state level would be “inefficient” should a bill addressing the matter work its way through the Statehouse in the meantime. She also said the stay would be an effort to “save everybody money” in litigation costs.

Representing the city, Lake City Law Group attorney Peter Erbland said that the lawsuit has cast a “cloud over the relationship between the city and The Festival,” characterizing the annual event as culturally and economically vital to Sandpoint. He said a ruling from the court as soon as possible would allow The Festival to move forward with plans for the 2020 concert series, while waiting on the Idaho Legislature to pass a bill created too much “uncertainty.”

“We need a resolution,” Erbland said.

Haynes denied the stay on the grounds that proceedings would best continue through adjudication, rather than sit paused in the hopes that a bill be “fast-tracked” at the state level — effectively settling the issue legislatively, instead of in the courts. In response to the county’s comment that a stay would save money, Haynes said that once a lawsuit is filed, “you’re in for a dime or in for a dollar.”

According to financial records obtained through a public records request by the Sandpoint Reader, the city of Sandpoint paid Lake City Law a total of $8,570.08 in connection with the case as of Feb. 2, and that number will rise to $11,270.08 once it satisfies an invoice for $2,700 from the Coeur d’Alene-based law firm due Friday, March 6.

As of Feb. 17, Bonner County has paid $36,563 to Davillier Law Group for work on the lawsuit, bringing the combined total legal expenditures in the case to $47,833.08 since it was filed in September. 

In response to Haynes’ denial of the stay, Sheriff Daryl Wheeler — a plaintiff in the case alongside Bonner County — said he is “committed” to pursuing a legal remedy to what he believes is a clear violation of Idaho firearms preemption law. He said that “if the founders of our state in 1890 and the Legislature in 2008” wanted to allow private lessees to ban the possession of weapons, “they would have done so.”

“This case involves a dispute of law,” Clemmons wrote on behalf of the county in a Feb. 26 email to the Reader. “Although it would be most expedient for the Legislature to resolve the dispute, the court is correct that there is no guarantee that will happen this spring, which was the basis for the court denying the stay.”

Clemmons said that a resolution from the court will “hopefully enable both parties to avoid the escalating hostilities occurring in the community.”

“The sheriff has an obligation to protect legal rights, serve the public and keep the peace, and he wants to do that to the best of his ability,” she said. “Sheriff Wheeler wants law enforcement officers to carry out their duties and to prevent an impending armed protest during the height of the tourist season.”

Immediately following the Feb. 25 hearing, Erbland filed a motion for summary judgement on behalf of the city, alleging that the county lacks standing in the case for a number of reasons — including that it is suffering no direct harm due to The Festival’s weapons ban. Though the city has taken the stance that no rights are being violated, even if they were, it would be an individual’s rights — not the county — that would be affected, and therefore its interest in the case is “equivalent to that of a concerned citizen to see that the government abides by the law, which is insufficient to confer standing.”

Further, Erbland cited Starrett v. City of Portland — an Oregon case in which the court ruled that leasing public property to a private person on terms that permit the lessee to prohibit firearms “is not an exercise of governmental regulatory authority.”

“Like the plaintiff in Starrett, Bonner County and Sheriff Wheeler confuse ‘property rights with municipal authority to exercise governmental regulatory power,’” Erbland’s motion reads.

In other words, municipalities are abridging no rights by allowing third-party lessees of public property to ban firearms during the period of their lease.

“Idaho law does not limit The Festival’s right to exclude persons carrying firearms from War Memorial Field,” the motion for summary judgement states. “The city has granted exclusive possession of War Memorial Field to The Festival for the lease term and has not adopted or enforced any law, rule, regulation or ordinance which regulates the possession or carrying of firearms.”

Erbland also filed a notice of hearing, requesting Haynes hear the city’s motion for summary judgement on Tuesday, March 24 at 1:30 p.m. at the Bonner County Courthouse. Haynes granted that request and will hear the motion then, according to court records.

As for what could happen if the judge rules in the city’s favor following the motion for summary judgement, it appears the dispute over guns at The Festival would be far from settled. Scott Herndon, a Bonner County citizen who attempted to enter The Festival with a gun in 2019 and was turned away, told the Reader that he and Boise-based gun rights lobby group Idaho Second Amendment Alliance would “almost certainly” file another complaint.

“If the county for some reason fails, our current perspective is that we believe we have a good legal claim against the city and would plan to pursue [a] suit, but we would have to see what Judge Haynes declares in any of his decisions,” Herndon said.

Herndon said that while he and ISAA supported the county’s original complaint — which focused on providing a clear interpretation of the law — they are less supportive of the amended complaint, which makes the issue about coordinating a law enforcement response should someone attempt to enter The Festival with a firearm. Herndon said that the amendment, brought by Wheeler, is alluding to the possibility that “there could be a riot or an attempt by people to [storm the gates].”

“While we thought the county’s original complaint was a good complaint, we do not believe the amended complaint contains accurate factual allegations, especially as pertains to us,” he said.

Herndon said that the amendment implies that the sheriff’s office might be anticipating an “armed standoff” consisting of a large group of Second Amendment activists converging on The Festival in protest of its weapons ban — a confrontation Herndon is vehemently opposed to.

“Don’t do that,” he said. “That’s not going to solve anything.”

Though Bonner County appears confident that the issue will be addressed in the Idaho Legislature during the current session, no firearms preemption bills have been introduced. Rep. Christy Zito, R-Hammett, is confirmed to be working on a bill that would address the topic — however, her draft has yet to be assigned a bill number.

It has also been suggested that Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, could be working on a firearms preemption bill of her own. Though she didn’t confirm that she’d been working on a bill herself, Scott did hint that a piece of legislation separate from Zito’s might soon be introduced.

“I think there is one coming from the Senate instead,” Scott wrote Feb. 25 in an email to the Reader. “Still waiting to hear.”

Herndon said he doubts those bills will see any movement during the current session due to the “compressed” nature of legislative proceedings.

“If it’s not already going, chances are it’s not going to go anywhere,” he said.

Additional reporting by Zach Hagadone.

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