Officer James Saylor of the Crow Police Department approached a truck parked on a public right-of-way within the Crow Reservation in Montana, specifically United States Highway 212. The driver of the truck, Joshua James Cooley, was questioned by Saylor and Saylor saw that Cooley appeared to be non-native and was exhibited signs of intoxication, like water, bloodshot eyes. Saylor also observed that Cooley had two semiautomatic rifles on his front seat. Saylor, fearing violence, ordered Cooley to exit the truck and conducted a pat-down search of his person. In Cooley’s truck, Saylor saw a glass pipe and a plastic bag containing methamphetamine. Additional officers arrived on scene, including an officer with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, after Saylor called for assistance. Saylor was told to seize all contraband in plain view, leading Saylor to find additional methamphetamine. Saylor detained Cooley and took him to the Crow Police Department where he was questioned by federal and local officers.
Whether a tribal police officer has the authority to detain temporarily and to search non-Indian persons traveling on a public right-of-way through a reservation for potential violations of state or federal law.
The United States Supreme Court views Indian tribes as “distinct, independent political communities exercising sovereign authority.” However, this sovereignty is of a “unique and limited character.” Indian tribes can determine tribal membership, regulative domestic affairs among tribal members, and exclude others from entering tribal land, but tribes lack inherent sovereign power to exercise criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians. Always, the tribal authority remains subject to the authority of Congress. Additionally, there exists no treaty or statute that divests Indian tribes of the policing authority in this case.
In reaching their decision, the United States Supreme Court laid down the general rule regarding native and non-native police interactions: the inherent sovereign powers of an Indian tribe do not extend to the activities of nonmembers of the tribe. This general rule, originating in Montana v. United States, 450 U.S. 544 (1981), has two exceptions, the second of which the United States Supreme Court found fitting in this case. This exception provides that “a tribe retains inherent authority over the conduct of non-Indians on the reservation when that conduct threatens or has some direct effect … on the health or welfare of the tribe.” The Court found that Saylor’s actions fall within this exception and that this decision is consistent with prior precedent. If the tribal police officer were not allowed to detain and search Saylor for a reasonable time, the tribal police officers would not be able to protect themselves against ongoing threats to themselves or their communities. The threat here could have been a non-Indian drunk driver, someone transporting contraband, or other criminal offenses committed while on the roads within the boundaries of a tribal reservation. The Court also noted that Saylor’s search and detention did not subject him to tribal law, but rather to applicable state and federal laws that always exist no matter the location of the offender within the United States.
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