Supreme Court explores extent of tribal police authority

Supreme Court explores extent of tribal police authority
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments in a case examining the extent of tribal police’s authority on reservation land.

The case concerns a 2016 incident in which a tribal police officer on the Crow Reservation in Montana found methamphetamine, two rifles and a pistol in the vehicle of James Cooley.

Cooley is not Native American, and he argued the Crow tribal officer lacked authority because his car was on a public road on the reservation.


Lower courts agreed with Cooley, but the federal government appealed, backing tribal authority in the case.

Court documents show the officer approached Cooley's car, which was parked on the side of a road on reservation land, to check on his well-being, The officer, James Saylor, then found methamphetamine, two rifles and a pistol in Cooley’s vehicle. Cooley’s young son was sitting on his lap during the police stop, court documents noted.

Saylor, after recognizing that Cooley was not Native American, called local and federal law enforcement to the scene. Another vehicle search revealed more than 50 grams of methamphetamine, Reuters noted.

Under the law, tribal governments have jurisdiction over members of their tribe, but can call in state and federal authorities for nontribe members. 

Cooley was charged by the federal government with one count of possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute and one count of possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, according to court documents.

Reuters noted that conservative Justice Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasTwo conservatives resign from Biden's Supreme Court commission Sotomayor says recent changes were made because male justices interrupted female colleagues Why Latinos need Supreme Court reform MORE expressed concerns that public safety could be endangered if tribal officers could not stop and detain non-Native Americans.

Liberal Justice Stephen BreyerStephen BreyerBreyer: Supreme Court 'fallible,' but has served US 'pretty well' Supreme Court considers Kentucky AG's power to defend abortion restriction Justice Alito's heresy MORE raised the idea that it is difficult for officers to look at individuals they stop and determine if they are Indians.

“You can’t just look at them and see whether they are Indians or not. People look different. I think that would be a tough one to do,” Breyer said.

One concern brought up by the justices, according to Reuters, was how far trial officers’ authority extends if they have the ability to detain. Deputy Solicitor General Eric Feigin, who is representing the government, said it would not expand to arrests or other criminal processes.