US Supreme Court backs Indigenous police powers on tribal lands

Unanimous decision holds that tribal officers have some power to search non-Indigenous people on Native reservations.

People walk past the US Supreme Court the day the court is set to release orders and opinions in Washington, DC, on June 1, 2021 [Erin Scott/Reuters]

The US Supreme Court on Tuesday endorsed Indigenous tribal police powers in one of its most notable rulings this term, backing the authority of a tribal officer in Montana to stop and search a non-Native American motorist on a public road on reservation land in Montana.

The justices ruled 9-0 against Joshua James Cooley in his effort to contest drug and weapons charges brought against him after a Crow tribal police officer found methamphetamine and firearms in his vehicle on a roadside on reservation land in 2016. The ruling means tribal police have at least some powers to conduct initial investigatory traffic stops involving non-tribe members.

Writing for the court, Justice Stephen Breyer said that “no treaty or statute has explicitly divested Indian tribes of the policing authority at issue.”

Associate Justice Stephen Breyer poses during a group photo of the Justices at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on April 23, 2021 [File: Erin Schaff/Pool via Reuters]

A federal judge in Montana and the San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled in favour of Cooley. Cooley had argued that tribal police lacked jurisdiction over him as a non-Indigenous citizen even though his parked vehicle was searched on a public road on a reservation.

The Supreme Court heard the federal government’s appeal backing tribal authority.

Existing precedents gave tribes criminal jurisdiction over tribe members but not non-tribe members, who instead can be prosecuted by the state or the federal government.

Cooley, with his young son also in the vehicle, was parked by the side of the road on reservation land in the early morning hours when Crow tribal police officer James Saylor spotted the vehicle and stopped to check on Cooley’s welfare. Saylor noticed there were two rifles and a pistol in the vehicle and drug paraphernalia in plain sight, court papers showed.

Saylor, who correctly believed that Cooley was not Indigenous, called local and federal law enforcement to the scene. A subsequent vehicle search uncovered more than 50 grams of methamphetamine.

Cooley was charged by the federal government with one count of possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute and one count of possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime.

US District Judge Susan Watters ruled in 2017 that evidence obtained during the encounter with the tribal officer could not be admitted. The 9th Circuit then ruled in favor of Cooley in 2019.

Reservations were established beginning in the 19th century after US authorities expelled Native Americans from their traditional lands.

The Supreme Court last year issued a ruling in another important case involving Native American tribal jurisdiction. The 5-4 decision in a child-rape case extended tribal authority in Oklahoma, effectively recognising Indigenous jurisdiction over a large part of the state.

The Supreme Court announced (PDF) on May 26 it will hear the case of a man sentenced to death for murdering Katrina Griffin and her two children in 2010.

The man, Shaun Bosse, claims the 2020 Supreme Court decision invalidates his conviction because the victims were members of the Chickasaw Nation, where the crime occurred.

The case is seen as a way for the court to decide “whether to clarify the implications of last year’s decision holding that Oklahoma lacks jurisdiction over certain crimes committed on land reserved for Native Americans”, according to SCOTUS blog Howe on the Court.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies