Indian sovereignty has limits

    The Supreme Court heard arguments on a landmark case in Indian tribal sovereignty in the United States on March 31. The ruling will seek to draw the line as to how much authority state officials have on tribal property. A ruling on the matter is not expected until April or May.

    The issue at stake is whether or not states have the authority to serve search warrants on Indian reservations. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, in siding with the tribes, ruled that a 1953 act of Congress gave states jurisdiction on American Indian land with respect to individual tribal members, but not tribal governments. Because Indian casinos are a tribal enterprise, the judge ruled that it was immune to local warrants, searches and seizures. What the court failed to realize in their opinion was that this grants the tribes too much power.

    The current case before the Supreme Court is a perfect example of how the appellate court’s decision could give the tribes too much power. Inyo County sheriffs investigated three tribal members in 1999 who were suspected of welfare fraud for collecting benefits while working at the tribe’s Paiute Palace casino in Bishop, Calif. The county got a search warrant for the employees’ pay records, but the tribe refused to hand them over. The district attorney obtained a search warrant in 2000 and seized the records by force after the tribe refused to honor the search warrant. When the county tried to serve another warrant three months later, the tribe filed suit in court.

    By allowing the tribes to balk at official warrants and not cooperate with state investigators, the Court gives the tribes freedom that goes beyond what the 1953 decision intended. It could very easily turn into a situation where a fugitive could seek refuge on tribal land. If a murder suspect were to book a room at a tribal hotel/casino, then, under the appellate court’s ruling, the tribe would be well within its right to not allow authorities to search rooms for the fugitive.

    Tribal supporters argue that the tribe has an interest in maintaining the peace and would not allow criminals to be harbored. But that argument depends entirely on the costs and benefits of every situation — far too subjective and fluid to constitute a long-term policy.

    How would tribal supporters react to a tribal member who murdered someone outside of the reservation for raping his daughter? The tribe might have an interest in not seeing this man go to jail for a crime of passion. He may even be an important tribal elder. The tribe could easily harbor that man in a tribal enterprise, such as a hotel or casino. While the law does give state authorities the right to prosecute individual members of tribes, the ruling has explicitly said that warrants cannot be served on tribal enterprises.

    In other words, the police could arrest a tribal suspect if he were at his home on the reservation or walking around it, but they could not enter a casino or hotel on a reservation without tribal consent. Again, if it were in the tribe’s interest not to consent, then tribal enterprises could turn into safe havens for criminal activity.

    Ultimately, this is an issue of sovereignty. The question is whether American Indians should be allowed to fully govern themselves on their own land and be treated as a separate government, or whether they are subordinate to state law.

    While proponents of tribal sovereignty maintain that tribes should be dealt with like other governments, the fact remains that they are not like other governments. These are sovereign states that were established by a government looking to atone for one of the biggest thefts in history.

    The purpose of sovereignty was to allow the American Indians to maintain their way of life. That included keeping tribal laws and allowing enterprises like casinos to generate capital for the tribal governments. Somewhere along that line, the sovereignty was taken too far.

    As of the latest appellate court ruling, the power of tribes was expanded to being able to block investigations of criminals at the discretion of the tribe and allowing corporate America to profit off of the sovereignty of the tribes (Harrah’s casino in North County is a perfect example of what can happen). These powers are no longer being used to protect a way of life, but to assert power on surrounding people that must abide by state law.

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