Tuesday, June 1, 2021
The Supreme Court ruled today that a tribal officer may temporarily detain and search a non-Native American person traveling on a public road through Native American land for potential violations of state and federal law.
The case, United States v. Cooley, arose when James Saylor, a Crow Police Department officer, detained and searched the vehicle of Joshua James Cooley, a non-Native American, on a public highway running through the Crow Reservation (in Montana). After observing the suspect's watery and bloodshot eyes, Saylor searched Cooley's vehicle and found drug paraphernalia and two rifles. Saylor took Cooley to the Crow Police Department, where federal and local officers questioned him. A federal grand jury indicted Cooley, but the lower courts granted his motion to suppress the drug evidence on the ground that Saylor lacked authority to stop and detain a non-Native American on tribal land.
A unanimous Supreme Court reversed. The Court said that while as a "general proposition," the "inherent sovereign powers of an Indian tribe do not extend to the activities of nonmembers of the tribe," a tribe retains authority over nonmembers "when that conduct threatens or has some direct effect on . . . the health or welfare of the tribe." The Court said that Saylor's temporary detention of Cooley fell squarely into that exception, and that Saylor's search of Cooley's vehicle was ancillary to Saylor's authority to detain Cooley.
The ruling means that tribal officers have authority to temporarily detain non-Native Americans on public roads running through tribal land upon suspicion of a violation of state or federal law; to search the suspect's vehicle incident to arrest; and to transport the suspect to the appropriate authorities.