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SCOTUS Reaffirms Sovereignty for Tribal Officers and Governments

By Jessica Dropkin

The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) epidemic in the US and Canada in past years has been difficult to tackle because of the maze of jurisdictions in place for members of Tribal law enforcement and their governments. Federal, state, and local law enforcement also run into many hurdles because they have to determine whether the person they are arresting is Native or non-Native. This verification is needed by all law enforcement because tribal laws, local, state and federal laws are not applicable on tribal and non-tribal lands. There are many non-Natives who take advantage of Tribal laws not applying to themselves when committing crimes on Indigenous lands.

On June 1, 2021 the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) reaffirmed Indigenous Tribes and their sovereignty by ruling that Tribal police officers have the power to temporarily detain, and search, non-Natives on tribal lands if they’re suspected of violating state, or federal law. This ruling was made in the case of United States v. Cooley which involved Joshua James Cooley, a non-Native on Tribal lands. Cooley was arrested by the Crow Police Department on the Crow Reservation in Montana, with a child in his car for weapons and methamphetamine in his vehicle. Cooley tried to submit a motion to suppress the evidence of drugs arguing that a Tribal police officer was not within his rights to search, seize, detain, and arrest him because he was not Indigenous.

Cooley was calling back to a SCOTUS ruling in Montana v. United States in 1981 that stated Tribal governments don’t have jurisdiction over non-members. They also don’t have jurisdictional authority over roadways where the federal government has control such as public highways like the one Cooley was detained on. There are only two exceptions to this ruling: One is if the non-Native person has a consensual relationship with the Tribe such as an employment contract. And two, is if their behavior “threatens or has some direct effect on the political integrity, the economic security, or the health or welfare of the Tribe”. Cooley was attempting to blatantly abuse the law to commit crimes on Indigenous territory, and potentially harm the people that own and reside on these lands, without facing repercussion. June 1st’s decision was the first time the SCOTUS applied the 2nd exception. The past 5 cases before this case were said to have ruled in favor of Tribes as well.

This is especially important for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) epidemic and imperative to the new Missing and Murdered Unit in the Department of the Interior’s fight for justice. There are many non-Natives that commit sexual and violent crimes on Tribal lands and escape persecution because they were able to use the 1981 ruling argument. This ruling against Cooley sets a precedent for MMIW cases to receive proper justice in our future.

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