Published on: Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Confronting complicated jurisdictional rules, the Supreme court held on Tuesday in United States v. Cooley that tribal governments — and thus their police officers — have the power to search and temporarily detain non-Indians suspected of breaking federal or state laws within reservations based on reasonable suspicion.

The decision reverses the Ninth Circuit, which held that tribal police officers can detain and search non-Indians only if there is an “obvious” or “apparent” violation of the law – as opposed to the reasonable-suspicion standard that non-tribal officers must satisfy to conduct a search.

The case originated when tribal police officer James Saylor pulled over to talk to the driver of a pickup truck idling on the shoulder of the highway on Crow Reservation in southern Montana. Saylor questioned the driver, Joshua James Cooley, a non-Native, and found three firearms and methamphetamine.

Cooley was charged but moved to suppress the evidence because the tribal officer lacked the power to detain and search him. The trial court agreed, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed, saying that the officer should have confirmed whether Cooley was an Indian or non-Indian before proceeding.

“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,” the ruling states. “Such threats may be posed by, for instance, non-Indian drunk drivers, transporters of contraband, or other criminal offenders operating on roads within the boundaries of a tribal reservation.”