With today’s polarized politics, when concern often is expressed about the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court, it is comforting to see that the court still can have a unanimous ruling. That was true this week in a case that has much relevance in Arizona, when the court said tribal police departments have the authority to make arrests under state and federal law.
Indian reservations, which cover a large part of Arizona, are considered sovereign. Tribes have their own laws and their own enforcement, in some cases working with federal law enforcement and federal courts. People passing through are subject to that authority. However, under the court’s ruling, criminals cannot use an excuse that tribal police officers cannot detain related to other laws.
The case originated five years ago on the Crow reservation in Montana when a tribal officer questioned a man in his vehicle. Guns and methamphetamine were visible, leading to federal gun and drug charges. The defendant, however, was able to get the drug evidence dismissed, with courts ruling that the officer did not have legal authority for the arrest. That all changed when the Supreme Court announced its ruling, saying that such officers have a right to protect the health and welfare of people on the reservation.
“The Supreme Court got it right, and upheld tribal authority to do the bare minimum of what any police force should be able to do to protect their homeland and the public safety of members of the community,” said Heather Whiteman Runs Him, director of the Tribal Justice Clinic at the University of Arizona.
Police organizations, including those on reservations, have gotten more training and also more accountability over the years. Meanwhile, there are far too many criminals, many of them under the influence of drugs, that pose a danger. Tribal police need to be able to deal with such people.
— Donovan Kramer Jr.