By Brenda Hammond
Do you know what a “constitutional sheriff” is? And do you know if we have one? It’s important to go back a bit in order to put these questions into context.
In June 1995, when the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force was still young, Bill Wassmuth spoke urgently and forcefully at what was then the Sandpoint High School gym, about the “patriot movement” that was becoming prevalent in this area at that time. Bill had been a priest living in the rectory of the Coeur d’Alene Catholic Church 10 years before when it was bombed by members of the Aryan Nations. He had since become director of the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, a true human rights hero in our region — and he knew a threat when he saw one.
He told the almost 500 people in attendance about the anti-government “patriot” movement that began in the 1990s and saw a number of armed militias being formed around Montana, the Northwest and the rest of the country. The Militia of Montana claimed a following of thousands at its peak in 1996.
The patriot movement in our region was fueled by the standoff at Ruby Ridge, and began to be framed at a meeting in Estes Park, Colo. This meeting was attended by leaders of groups with their roots in white supremacy and anti-Semitism. But they looked to found a movement that would be more mainstream, playing on anti-government sentiment and one-world conspiracy theories and focusing on issues like gun rights and taxes. It gained more followers after the federal siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City on the second anniversary of that event.
By 2001, the number of patriot groups as well as their membership, were in rapid decline. However, the ideology behind them is appearing in other forms, and still going strong. In fact the “patriot” movement and the anti-environmental movement came together as the Bundy family engaged in armed standoffs with the government in both Nevada and at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Malheur County, Ore. Both movements share a belief in “county supremacy.” The anti-environmental, or “Wise-Use” groups support the concept of the county commission having ultimate jurisdiction over all the land within the county. The “patriot’ ideology focuses on the role of the county sheriff — seeing them as the highest legitimate law enforcement officer and rooted in Posse Comitatus beliefs that the sheriff has the task of defending citizens from the federal government.
A new iteration of the Posse Comitatus belief in county supremacy is the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. Formed in 2011, by Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff who had been recruited by the National Rifle Association in the 1990s to organize opposition to the Brady Handgun Violence Act, the CSPOA was formed to recruit sheriffs and police officers to “stand as an army to set our country free.” It calls itself, “the last line of defense standing between the overreaching government and your Constitutionally guaranteed rights.” The CSPOA website states that the county sheriff is “the one who can say to the feds, ‘Beyond these bounds you shall not pass.’”
The CSPOA has claimed more than 400 members — and according to several other sheriffs, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, our Sheriff Darryl Wheeler is one of them.
As voting citizens of Bonner County we should know where our sheriff stands — and understand its implications. Ask Sheriff Wheeler yourself — and see what he says.
The Center for Public Integrity has reported that the CSPOA’s “ambition is to encourage law enforcement officers to defy laws they decide themselves are illegal.” There has been opposition from fellow law enforcers who see resisting the federal government as undermining the rule of law. The legal authority they cite, the U.S. Constitution, established a court system to interpret the law and decide what statutes violate its provisions. It does not grant this authority to sheriffs, and they have no legal basis for their belief otherwise.
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