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Upholding Tribal Authority: The Pivotal Case of United States v. Cooley

July 11, 2024

In the early morning hours, Officer James Saylor of the Crow Police Department encountered Joshua James Cooley, parked on United States Highway 212 within the Crow Reservation in Montana. This encounter sparked a legal battle, leading to the seizure of illegal goods and a federal indictment against Cooley.

Nonetheless, the issue of whether tribal police officers have the right to detain and search individuals who are not part of the Indigenous community on tribal lands became the central focus of a legal dispute that made its way to the highest court in the land.

The legal case, United States v. Cooley, analyzed the extent of tribal authority and inherent power over individuals not part of the indigenous community within reservation boundaries. The Ninth Circuit Court had previously ruled in favor of Cooley, stating that tribal officers did not have the power to investigate unnoticed violations of state or federal laws by non-Indians on public roads within reservations. However, the Supreme Court in the land unanimously overturned this ruling.

Judge Breyer, delivering the statement of the Bench, highlighted the exclusions to the overall principle that tribal independence does not encompass outsiders of the clan, as detailed in Montana v. United States. The subsequent exclusion, which permits clans to manage behavior that threatens the well-being or health of the clan, was deemed appropriate.

The Bench reasoned that prohibiting clan officials from detaining and investigating individuals would obstruct their capacity to safeguard against dangers caused by non-tribespeople, like driving under the influence or transporting illicit goods on reservation pathways.

Additionally, the Bench voiced concerns regarding the practicality of the Ninth Circuit's criteria, which mandated that clan officials must initially ascertain a suspect's background and detain them solely for evident legal infractions. This tactic was considered unfeasible and could encourage suspects to deceive.

Cooley debated against broadening tribal power, expressing worries about exceeding limits. However, the Tribunal upheld that the situation's specifics closely matched the exceptions defined in Montana, thus validating tribal supervision.

Additionally, Cooley emphasized existing federal mutual aid agreements, indicating that Congress had already outlined the extent of tribal law enforcement authority. Nevertheless, the Tribunal deemed these clauses inadequate, as they did not cover breaches of state regulations and were often difficult to carry out due to negotiation complexities. Ultimately, the Supreme Court's ruling in United States v. Cooley reaffirmed tribal independence and inherent control over non-Indigenous individuals within reservation borders. By supporting the authority of tribal law enforcement officers to apprehend and investigate individuals for potential breaches of state or federal regulations, the Tribunal ensured the safeguarding of tribal communities. It upheld their capacity to maintain public safety, setting a significant precedent in tribal law and law enforcement.

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