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SCOTUS rules tribal police can stop, search non-Native drivers on tribal lands

Supreme Court
Posted at 10:41 AM, Jun 01, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. — 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 stop or search 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 Supreme Court case centered around Joshua Cooley, a Wyoming resident who was detained by a Crow Tribal highway safety agent in 2016, KPAX reports. The detainment resulted in the man’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.

The Supreme Court ruled that on a public right-of-way that traverses a Native American reservation and is primarily patrolled by tribal police, a tribal officer has the authority to stop a non-Native 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 motorist for the period of time reasonably necessary for a non-tribal officer to arrive on the scene.

The Associated Press reports that the Supreme Court had previously held that tribal police have little authority over non-Native people, so this ruling signals a change in that respect.