WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that tribal police officers can stop and search non-Indians on tribal lands for potential violations of state or federal law.
The justices unanimously reversed an appellate ruling in favor of a non-Native motorist who was charged with drug-related crimes after a tribal officer searched his pickup truck on a public road that crosses the Crow reservation in Montana.
The Supreme Court has previously held that tribal police have little authority over non-Indians, but Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the court that allowing a temporary stop and detention — so that state or federal authorities can be called in — enhances public safety.
“To deny a tribal police officer authority to search and detain for a reasonable time any person he or she believes may commit or has committed a crime would make it difficult for tribes to protect themselves against ongoing threats,” Breyer wrote.
The case involved a traffic stop in 2016 in which Officer James Saylor of the Crow Tribe Police Department came upon a pickup truck with its headlights on and motor running, parked on the shoulder of U.S. Route 212.
The driver, Joshua Cooley, had watery, bloodshot eyes, Saylor said. Cooley also had two semiautomatic rifles and a handgun in the pickup, as well as methamphetamine.
Saylor called for help from federal and county officers, who eventually arrested Cooley.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Cooley, saying that non-Indians can be detained only if evidence of a crime is “apparent” or “obvious.”
The Justice Department appealed during the Trump administration and maintained its position after President Joe Biden took office.