Lawyers, guns and money

As one lawsuit surrounding The Festival gun policy sees its first anniversary, another is just beginning

By Lyndsie Kiebert and Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

As Bonner County’s lawsuit against the city of Sandpoint regarding The Festival at Sandpoint’s weapons policy approaches its first birthday, a second suit — filed by local gun rights activists and out-of-state gun rights lobby groups — has its first day in court scheduled later this month. 

Both cases are slated to go before Kootenai County District Court Judge Lansing L. Haynes on Tuesday, Aug. 25 at 1:30 p.m., as they are part of the same docket of cases the judge is set to hear that day via Zoom video conference. According to court administrators, the judge will hear cases in an order which gets simpler matters out of the way first, and more complex cases are heard thereafter. While Haynes will hear motions for summary judgement in the Bonner County v. Sandpoint case on Aug. 25, the second Festival-related lawsuit will see a status conference.

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

According to the most recent records requests obtained by the Sandpoint Reader from the county and city, expenditures have continued to rise for both municipalities in the ongoing lawsuit. Bonner County reported Aug. 6 that $117,631 in legal fees have been paid to New Orleans-based Davillier Law Group for work on the case. Meanwhile, the city of Sandpoint logged invoices from Coeur d’Alene-based Lake City Law totalling $24,950.55, combined, payable July 31 and Sept. 2. 

According to city officials, Sandpoint has spent a total of $87,114 on the case, which has been in the judicial system for a year without a ruling, though, as Sandpoint City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton told the Reader in an email, “we are looking forward to a resolution [at the Aug. 25 hearing].”

The total expenditures for county and city in the case have now crested $200,000 since last summer.

In a declaration filed July 24, Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler detailed expenses incurred in an effort to curb “planned protests” by armed citizens outside The Festival gates should the court not issue a ruling before the next event, and the “risks inherent in that situation.” Between batons, shields, helmets and overtime pay, Wheeler contended that “these non-budgeted costs exceed $15,535 and my costs are ongoing and will continue in the future.”

“I consider the need to be prepared for a protest and the likelihood of disruptive elements or flash points occurring to be absolutely necessary for both officer safety and public safety,” Wheeler stated.

The city pushed back against Wheeler’s intimations of “disruptive elements” necessitating crowd control training for his officers. In a response to questions, City Hall was adamant that, “We have no reason to believe that a violent confrontation will take place [at the 2021 Festival].”  

“This is pure speculation on behalf of Sheriff Wheeler and we believe it is insulting to the parties on both sides of this dispute,” city officials stated to the Reader. “Scott Herndon and another individual [Jeff Avery] attempted to enter the Festival last year and notified Festival security at the front gate that they were carrying. They did not raise their voices, make threats or otherwise incite a riot. To suggest that there will be an armed confrontation at a Festival event is irresponsible.”

Yet, Wheeler said the BCSO has retained Richard Dave Welts, “the foremost expert in crowd control in this area to handle the training and prepare for the planned protests at the Festival.” Wheeler told the Reader that Welts, a retired Los Angeles police officer, will be providing training starting Aug. 13 as an unpaid volunteer. The Reader filed a records request Aug. 11 for any contract or agreement between BCSO and Welts, and was told there is none.

In a separate declaration filed in July, Welts said that the curriculum for training will include “crowd control positioning, Tactical Operations Center (TOC), tangle team instruction used for sit-down protestors, baton training, crossbow maneuver, and how to be an instructor on these techniques.”

Once SWAT team members are trained, Welts said two officers — who are already Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) trainers — will submit the course to the POST academy for approval. If approved, those SWAT members will then train the rest of the department’s deputies over a five month period.

Welts said he anticipates it will take six to eight months to complete training, not including time needed for recommended interagency training with the Sandpoint Police Department.

It’s unclear whether the city of Sandpoint and its police force will participate in the training regimen proposed by Wheeler and Welts. Regarding the 2021 Festival and its security, city officials stated that, “The Festival has been responsible for providing security at its events and will be required to do so in the future if it continues to hold events on City property. They are responsible for crowd management. The City of Sandpoint does not use or direct the Festival’s private security. The private security firm is under contract with the Festival at Sandpoint, not the City of Sandpoint. The Sandpoint Police Department does not arrest people for carrying weapons and has not asked a third party to do so. We have stated our position repeatedly — we do not regulate guns.”

Stapleton, in an email that included Sandpoint Police Chief Corey Coon, told the Reader that SPD provides “ongoing, annual training” for its officers, “including de-escalation training.”  

“This training reinforces our policy to de-escalate situations, where possible, by communicating with the subject(s), maintaining distance and otherwise eliminating the need to use force,” she stated, going on to list examples of the policy, including a number of protocols intended to lessen tensions in situations that — as Wheeler’s filing suggests — could lead to violence.

Regardless, the city maintains that Wheeler’s fears are unfounded and security plans for the 2021 Festival are well in hand.

“At no time, has any Sandpoint city official said that we will not have law enforcement present at the Festival. It is irresponsible to suggest that we have,” the city told the Reader in direct reference to one of the points in Wheeler’s filing, which alleged that, “The City of Sandpoint plans to use Festival security to arrest any protestors attempting to assert their Constitutional rights and enter the Festival. I find the City’s plan to be unconstitutional and to increase the safety risks and concerns.”

The city stated: “The Sandpoint Police Department is responsible for keeping the peace within the boundaries of the City of Sandpoint. That responsibility is not taken lightly. It applies to large events, including the Festival at Sandpoint.” 

Referenced in Wheeler’s declaration are Second Amendment Alliance members who have also filed a claim against the city — a case taking its first steps during the Aug. 25 series of hearings.

Sagle man Scott Herndon, referred to by the city in its communication with the Reader and a plaintiff in the suit, who attempted to enter The Festival with a firearm in 2019, said the Aug. 25 hearing will most likely be used to determine court dates moving forward.

Herndon, along with area resident Jeff Avery, Boise-based gun rights lobby group Idaho Second Amendment Alliance and Bellevue, Wash.-based Second Amendment Foundation, argue that The Festival’s policy violates state firearms preemption law and corporations code, and abridges the Second, Fourth and 14th amendments.

Herndon, who has been a critic of the county’s pivot from a legal argument to one of public safety, said he has not read Wheeler’s most recent declaration, but has read local media coverage regarding the purchase of crowd control equipment and training to face what the county believes to be an imminent threat should the court fail to rule before the next Festival.

As of presstime, the city of Sandpoint had no comment on the Herndon suit.

“When The Festival resumes at some point in the future, I do not personally plan to protest,” Herndon said. “Rather, our team will pursue our suit in the district court and will follow through until we have a final decision on our case from the judiciary. In the meantime, we certainly wish the county well and hope they achieve a successful outcome in their suit.”

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