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SCOTUS rules against man who argued that tribal police don't have authority over those outside tribe

Posted at 8:41 AM, Jun 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-01 11:57:46-04

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against a man who was arrested within the Crow Reservation in Montana and argued that Native American law enforcement didn’t have the authority to investigate a person who does not have tribal status.

The United States v. Cooley ruling that was announced on Tuesday was unanimous and the opinion for the case was delivered by Justice Stephen Breyer.

The case centered around Joshua Cooley, a Wyoming resident who was detained by a Crow Tribal highway safety agent in 2016. The detainment resulted in Cooley's indictment on meth distribution charges.

The Supreme Court’s ruling reverses an appellate ruling that found the tribal officer had exceeded his authority to investigate a person who doesn’t have tribal status.

Here is background on the case:

Late one night Officer James Saylor of the Crow Police Department approached a truck parked on United States Highway 212, a public right-of-way within the Crow Reservation in the State of Montana. Saylor spoke to the driver, Joshua James Cooley, and observed that Cooley appeared to be non-native and had watery, bloodshot eyes. Saylor also noticed two semiautomatic rifles lying on Cooley’s front seat. Fearing violence, Saylor ordered Cooley out of the truck and conducted a patdown search. Saylor also saw in the truck a glass pipe and a plastic bag that contained methamphetamine. Additional officers, including an officer with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, arrived on the scene in response to Saylor’s call for assistance. Saylor was directed to seize all contraband in plain view, leading Saylor to discover more methamphetamine. Saylor took Cooley to the Crow Police Department where federal and local officers further questioned Cooley. Subsequently, a federal grand jury indicted Cooley on drug and gun offenses.
The District Court granted Cooley’s motion to suppress the drug evidence. The Ninth Circuit affirmed. It reasoned that a tribal police officer could stop (and hold for a reasonable time) a non-Indian suspect if the officer first tries to determine whether the suspect is non-Indian and, in the course of doing so, finds an apparent violation of state or federal law. The Ninth Circuit concluded that Saylor had failed to make that initial determination here.

The court ruled that on a public right-of-way that traverses an Indian reservation and is primarily patrolled by tribal police, a tribal officer has the authority to stop a non-Indian motorist if there is reasonable suspicion that the driver may violate or has violated federal or state law.

In this type of situation, the court also ruled that a tribal officer can conduct a search to the extent necessary to protect themselves or others.

And if the tribal officer has probable cause, the court says the tribal officer may detain the driver for the period of time reasonably necessary for a non-tribal officer to arrive on the scene.