Tribes try to navigate jurisdictional issues on law enforcement

By P. Solomon Banda
Colorado Springs, Colorado (AP) 09-07

Three years ago, Navajo Police Sgt. Wallace Billie couldn’t arrest a man for drug possession after the man openly displayed several doses of methamphetamine.

On September 24th, Billie told a conference of tribal law enforcement authorities how his department, in partnership with federal and state authorities, now is conducting undercover operations and enforcement activities that have resulted in dozens of arrests and thousands of dollars seized.

More than 300 people from American Indian tribes from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah attended the conference geared to help the tribes deal with the jurisdictional maze facing law enforcement on reservations.

In Billie’s case, the delusional Navajo man who was high on meth was subject to tribal law jurisdiction, which didn’t have a law outlawing meth, and couldn’t be arrested for drug possession. Had the man been a non-American Indian, Billie could have arrested him for violating Arizona and federal law.

“That’s when we had to get creative and find something else that we could arrest him for,” he said with a smile. The man was arrested on charges of creating a nuisance and unlawful carrying of a weapon, and the tribal law was changed that year to outlaw meth.

Colorado U.S. Attorney Troy Eid said that these jurisdictional loopholes are being exploited by drug dealers.

“Indian reservations are being used as a business development tool by the large drug trafficking organizations,” Eid said.

In a drug bust in May 2006 in Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation occupied by the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes, Eid talked about a business plan seized by authorities that outlined how the drug organization wanted to replace alcohol abuse with meth abuse.

“It described in very graphic terms how they planned to establish romantic relationships with women, get them hooked and then get them to deal,” Eid said. “Establishing relationships with these women was designed to help them gain acceptance in the community.”

The business plan also outlined how non-American Indians should handle the drugs while on the reservation because tribal police couldn’t arrest them, Eid said.

A law passed by Congress in the 1800s gave the federal government jurisdiction on Indian reservations only for major crimes and didn’t specify drugs. Court cases, including the landmark 1978 Oliphant Supreme Court case, found tribal police had no criminal jurisdiction over non-American Indians, leaving countless jurisdictional questions that the Four Corners Indian Country Conference that began Monday seeks to answer.

Pascua Yaqui Police Chief Tracy Nelson said a court challenge has left her with few tools to deal with non-American Indians who commit crimes such as domestic violence in her 2-square mile reservation carved out in Tucson, Ariz. While such cases were once prosecuted in county court, a challenge in the late 1990s established that such cases needed to be in federal court, where only five cases out of hundreds were prosecuted last year.

“That’s the biggest glitch,” she said. “If it gets too bad, four, five, or six calls, we can get an exclusionary order to kick (suspects) off the reservation.

“I don’t know how to correct it. It has to be corrected in Congress.”

For Tohono O’Odham Nation Police Chief Richard Saunders, whose reservation in southern Arizona includes 75 miles of border with Mexico, the problem is one that is familiar to many law enforcement agencies across the country: illegal immigration.

Residents of the reservation sometimes call police with reports of 50 to 100 people behind their houses, Saunders said.

“We call Border Patrol and then we wait,” he said of his department’s response. “If it’s longer than an hour’s wait, we let them go.”

Eid has responded to the jurisdictional questions in Colorado by working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to allow the tribal officers to be able to enforce federal laws, including drug laws, on reservations. So-called cross deputizing of nearby sheriff’s deputies, police departments or state troopers allows them to respond to distress calls on reservations. He has compressed a five-day cross-deputization course into two days, and his office conducts the courses at the agencies, saving officers the need to drive hours.

So far 85 officers have been cross-deputized since February.

Even with authority to enforce federal laws, Saunders said that still leaves some questions unanswered. “It’s not our duty to enforce immigration laws,” he said.
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