US Supreme Court Takes Up Tribal Traffic Stops

The power of Indian tribes to exercise authority over non-Indian drivers on public roads will be decided this year by the US Supreme Court. Justices agreed to take up the case of Joshua James Cooley, who encountered a Crow Indian Reservation police officer while he was resting in his truck on the side of US Route 212 in Montana.

Tribal Officer James Saylor pulled up and ordered Cooley to lower his window. The officer could see Cooley was not an Indian and that he had bloodshot eyes — Cooley explained this by saying he had pulled over because he was tired. The officer did not believe Cooley’s story that he was out late at night buying a truck, so he ordered Cooley to lower the window further to give him a better look inside the vehicle. He saw two rifles. A thorough search of the truck uncovered a plastic bag containing methamphetamine.

At trial, a federal court found the tribal officer’s actions were unreasonable and that he lacked the authority to detain a non-Indian on a public highway, except to turn him over to “state or federal authorities” in the case of an obvious violation of state or federal laws. The Ninth Circuit US Court of Appeals upheld the ruling. Indian tribes are asking the high court to overturn the decision so that they might have unfettered discretion to stop and fine anyone on a road touching tribal lands.