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The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that the general proposition in Montana v. United States, 450 U. S. 544 (1981), that the inherent sovereign powers of a Native American Tribe do not extend to the activities of nonmembers of the tribe was not an absolute rule. The Court set forth two important exceptions. First, the Court said that a tribe may regulate, through taxation, licensing, or other means, the activities of nonmembers who enter consensual relationships with the tribe or its members, through commercial dealing, contracts, leases, or other arrangements. Second, the Court said that a tribe may also retain inherent power to exercise civil authority over the conduct of non-Indians on fee lands within its reservation when that conduct threatens or has some direct effect on the political integrity, the economic security, or the health or welfare of the tribe.
Late one night Officer James Saylor of the Crow Police Department approached a truck parked on United States Highway 212, a public right-of-way within the Crow Reservation in the State of Montana. Saylor spoke to the driver, Joshua James Cooley, and observed that Cooley appeared to be non-native and had watery, bloodshot eyes. Saylor also noticed two semiautomatic rifles lying on Cooley's front seat. Fearing violence, Saylor ordered Cooley out of the truck and conducted a patdown search. Saylor also saw in the truck a glass pipe and a plastic bag that contained methamphetamine. Additional officers, including an officer with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, arrived on the scene in response to Saylor's call for assistance. Saylor was directed to seize all contraband in plain view, leading Saylor to discover more methamphetamine. Saylor took Cooley to the Crow Police Department where federal and local officers further questioned Cooley. Subsequently, a federal grand jury indicted Cooley on drug and gun offenses. The District Court granted Cooley's motion to suppress the drug evidence. The Ninth Circuit affirmed. It reasoned that a tribal police officer could stop (and hold for a reasonable time) a non-Indian suspect if the officer first tries to determine whether the suspect is non-Indian and, in the course of doing so, finds an apparent violation of state or federal law. The Ninth Circuit concluded that Saylor had failed to make that initial determination here.
Did a tribal police officer have the authority to detain temporarily and to search non-Indian persons traveling on public rights-of-way running through an Indian reservation for potential violations of state or federal law?
The court held that the suppression of the evidence in subsequent federal criminal charges was not warranted because the tribal officer had authority to search and detain any person the officer believed might commit or had committed a crime on the Reservation when that conduct threatened or had some direct effect on the health or welfare of the Tribe. The search and detention did not subject the arrestee to Tribal law, but only to state and federal laws that applied whether an individual was outside a reservation or on a state or federal highway within it.