DCSO, tribe at odds over tickets
Johnson Lane resident Jim Hill was surprised when a Washoe Tribal Police officer stopped him on Highway 395 near Indian Hills one night a few weeks ago.
Hill thought he was traveling the speed limit, and when he saw the officer’s lights, he thought they were probably intended for a motorcycle that had just passed at a high rate of speed.
They were not, and Hill, a reserve deputy with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, received a warning for driving what he estimated was 5 mph over the 55 mph limit. Hill doesn’t think the outcome had anything to do with his status as a reserve officer – he only showed his badge to let the tribal officer, who was approaching a strange vehicle in the dark, know he wasn’t dangerous – but he was taken aback the encounter happened at all.
“Everyone knows they have jurisdiction on the reservations, and where the reservations are,” said Hill. “It’s kind of a surprise to find out they’re out on Highway 395 as well.”
The surprise is not being welcomed by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office or the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office, neither of which believe tribal police have any right to stop motorists or make arrests on non-reservation land.
County reacts. The Sheriff’s Office gave the tribal police notice Friday that the Douglas County jail will not house any suspects arrested by tribal officers on non-reservation land. The county will continue to accept suspects arrested on reservation land, however.
“It all comes down to an issue of liability,” said Douglas County Sheriff Ron Pierini. “It’s a very serious issue. We think they don’t have the authority to be making traffic stops off reservation land, and they shouldn’t be doing them. We don’t want to bring Douglas County into the liability loop by holding a person in custody if tribal didn’t have the authority to arrest them in the first place.”
Tribal Police Capt. Rick Norris said his officers don’t make arrests off tribal land, and he doesn’t expect the new county stance to be an issue.
He also said tribal officers will continue writing tickets on Highway 395, where the tribe owns a strip of land between Indian Hills and Plymouth Drive.
“He has his point of view and we have ours,” said Norris. “It’s a safety issue, and I think we should continue to patrol the area and issue tickets regardless of petty jurisdictional issues.”
Warning issued. The dispute over tribal authority on public roads that cross Washoe tribal lands has been simmering for a few years. Highway 395 crosses Washoe lands between Indian Hills and Plymouth Drive, as well as south of Gardnerville. Tribal police have been seen stopping motorists traffic on Highway 395 near Plymouth Drive at various times throughout the summer.
Pierini said he warned the tribe to stop issuing tickets a few years ago when a similar campaign started south of Gardnerville, and the tribe complied. Pierini says he’s talked with Norris about the recent stops, but Norris claimed the tribal officers have authority to make the stops based on a court decision.
Norris said he couldn’t comment specifically on Pierini’s concerns because he didn’t have enough information.
“What’s at issue is whether we have jurisdiction over roadways that go through our lands,” he said. “We’re going to leave that decision to a higher level.”
A meeting between tribal officials and a lawyer from the attorney general’s office on the matter is reportedly planned.
Legal opinion sought. Pierini asked the Douglas County District Attorney’s Office for an opinion. In a memo dated Aug. 13, Deputy District Attorney Brian Chally backed Pierini’s contention that tribal police authority generally ends at the reservation boundary.
Chally cited a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said tribal authorities don’t have jurisdiction over public roads that cross tribal land, as Highway 395 does.
“Tribal police do not have have general civil or criminal jurisdiction to stop, cite and arrest citizens as they have been doing on Highway 395,” Chally wrote. “There is no civil (regulatory or adjudicatory) authority for tribal officers to stop, cite or arrest for violations of state, county or Washoe Tribe traffic codes or laws.”
Chally said tribal officers have been citing a local case in which a personal injury lawsuit involving a non-tribal member was sent to tribal court because the incident happened on tribal land.
“This case involves an incident on reservation land, which is the only basis for tribal court jurisdiction,” Chally wrote. “No reasonable argument can be made that this case allows tribal police to go off reservation property onto a state right-of-way and stop, cite or arrest citizens traveling on Highway 395.”
Chally did cite one exception: the “fresh pursuit” situation, which occurs if a suspect leads officers off tribal land during a chase.
Liability worries. The disagreement over the tribal police department’s authority on public roadways is one of several unresolved concerns. Pierini says he doesn’t want to strain the relationship between Douglas and the Washoe Tribe, but tribal officials haven’t responded to his overtures to address the concerns, which revolve around the legal liability Douglas could incur.
Douglas County doesn’t have the same degree of immunity from lawsuits that the tribal police have. A mutual agreement between the agencies could provide it, but Pierini says the tribe has not acted on his requests to create one.
As a result, Douglas deputies and the county could be sued if they assist in an arrest that results in injury, or help detain a person without sufficient legal cause. If a lawsuit gets filed, “It will come back to Douglas County because they (the Washoe Tribe) can’t be sued,” said Pierini, adding agencies all over Nevada face similar liability. “I don’t think the sheriffs and chiefs throughout the state have a clue how serious this is.”
Officers warned. The dilemma can appear at any time, because officers will instinctively aid each other regardless of who they work for. In his memo, Chally said Douglas officers should avoid working with tribal officers “unless the situation is truly life-threatening.”
That applies to asking the tribal officers for backup, as well as backing them. Still, Pierini admits liability concerns would not stop Douglas from responding if a tribal officer needs assistance.
“If an officer truly needs help, they (Douglas deputies) have the discretion to do it. I am willing to take that chance in a life and death situation.”
But he is frustrated with the tribe’s apparent indifference to the liability issue. And, while he wouldn’t elaborate, Pierini said continued defiance of the Supreme Court decision on public traffic enforcement laws will lead to “recourse.”
“If it does not stop, there will be recourse,” he said. “I don’t want to see it go that far. I want to work it out.
“It’s very clear in our minds, at least, they have no jurisdiction to do what they’re doing. It has to stop.”