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Court sides with tribe in law enforcement dispute
Friday, November 12, 2004

In a victory for tribal law enforcement, a federal appeals court last week barred a county sheriff from imposing state law on a tribe's police force even when those officers leave the reservation.

According to the state vehicle code, the use of emergency light bars is limited to "authorized emergency vehicles" performing emergency services. For several years, the sheriff in Riverside County has been using this law against the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians.

The Cabazon Reservation is composed of four non-contiguous sections, so tribal police officers must travel on non-reservation roads to get from one area to another. But whenever they did so using emergency lights, they were stopped and cited by the county for violating the state law.

In response, the tribal police were forced to remove the lights every time they left the reservation. The chief of the tribe's public safety department said this practice posed a danger to the officers and limited their ability to carry out their duties.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed in a decision released on November 3. Describing the removal of the lights as a "preposterous and time-consuming ritual," a panel of three judges held that the state law was "discriminatory" towards tribes because no other government is treated the same.

"It is clear that the challenged vehicle code sections do not treat the tribe’s police force the same as other law enforcement entities within California," Judge Harry Pregerson wrote for the majority. "California permits all state, county, and city law enforcement officials within the state to display and to use emergency light bars."

The decision overturned a federal judge's ruling that went in favor of the county. It also reversed a split May 2001 opinion from the 9th Circuit that said the tribe was subject to the state law.

The tribe sought a rehearing, as is common when a court is divided on an issue. In the meantime, the tribe entered into a deputization agreement with the Bureau of Indian Affairs that granted federal commissions to every tribal officer who met the requirements.

The agreement was key to the tribe's case. It led the California Highway Patrol to conclude the federal commissions meant the police officers are allowed to use their emergency lights off the reservation.

But the county balked and argued that the tribe's use of emergency lights would cause traffic, safety and other problems. The 9th Circuit rejected all of the county's arguments.

The court went further and embraced a view that tribal law enforcement is not absolutely limited by the boundaries of a reservation. In a Public Law 280 state like California, the holding appears to be landmark.

"Every law enforcement jurisdiction shares the same obligation and purpose: to protect and to serve their respective communities and citizens," the court said. "We agree with the BIA that the boundaries of Indian Country should not impede tribal officers’ travel, use of marked vehicles, emergency response, or other aspects of their policing authority necessary to meet the officers’ law enforcement obligations to their reservation community."

Over the years, law enforcement officials in California have clashed with tribes over the reach of state law on the reservation. In a highly-publicized incident that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the sheriff in Inyo County raided a tribe's casino and used bolt-cutters to seize records.

Get the Decision:
Cabazon Band of Mission Indians v. Smith (November 3, 2004)

Relevant Links:
Cabazon Band of Mission Indians -
National Native American Law Enforcement Association -
Riverside County Sheriff -

Related Stories:
South Dakota challenge to tribes rejected by high court (10/19)
Morongo Band negotiates law enforcement compact (09/29)
Supreme Court rebuffs tribe in immunity case (5/20)
Tribal fears in Supreme Court case go unrealized (05/20)
S.D. puts pressure on tribal sovereignty (2/12)
State power over tribal government in dispute (12/03)
Supreme Court bars state officials from tribal suit (6/26)
O'Connor defends tribes amidst squabbling (6/26)

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