Supreme Court ruling: Allowing tribal police officers to stop, detain non-Natives — what about the Cayuga Nation?

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled a unanimous decision — enshrining the right for tribal police officers to temporarily detain non-Indigenous travelers who are carrying out crimes while venturing along highways that traverse reservation lands.

On Tuesday, June 1, Associate Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer revealed in his majority opinion of the United States v. Cooley case that Nations “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” — all the while reenforcing a previous ruling from Montana v. United States.

Lee Alcott, partner at Barclay Damon, answered FingerLakes1.com‘s media request on behalf of the Cayuga Nation, only after inquiring about the significance of the latest “important decision” relating to Indian Country — one that “relied, in part, on a friend-of-court brief filed by the Cayuga Nation.”

Joshua James Cooley, a non-Indigenous person, had been pulled over by a Crow Nation police officer while driving through a portion of their reservation along a federal highway in Montana. The officer later found Cooley in possession of cash, methamphetamine and an unlicensed pistol.

Federal prosecutors from the U.S. District Court in Montana determined that the Crow police officer who stopped Cooley had no criminal jurisdiction to legally search and detain the non-Native — a decision that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals also upheld. This particular legal dilemma incentivized the Cayuga Nation to join other Nations, scholars and politicians in an attempt to argue that “the lower court decision was wrong,” according to Alcott.

Now, the newly-devised verdict is granting federally-recognized Nations “inherent sovereign authority” to “detain temporarily and to search non-Indian persons traveling on public rights-of-way running through a reservation for potential violations of state or federal law.”

Breyer also noted in his aforementioned majority opinion that denying a tribal police officer the authority to search and detain potential suspects “would make it difficult for tribes to protect themselves against ongoing threats.”

This Supreme Court decision has earned the official stamp of approval from the Cayuga Nation’s leadership under the direction of Clint Halftown, the BIA’s federally-recognized representative.

“The Cayuga Nation and the Nation’s Police Department take seriously the health and safety of Cayuga Nation citizens and applaud the Supreme Court’s well-reasoned decision in Indian nation police authority,” Alcott later wrote in a statement on behalf of the Nation.

The highest court in the land’s latest decision, however, has no bearing on the Cayuga Nation current policing activities, according to Gabe Galanda, managing lawyer of Galanda Broadman.

“Cooley doesn’t help legitimize the Halftown Faction or its goons. Cayuga’s rent-a-cops lack arrest authority on non-reservation lands and Cooley doesn’t change that fact,” Galanda responded to FingerLakes1.com. “Alcott’s statement is more smoke and mirrors.”

Prior to this decision, the Cayuga Nation has come under scrutiny for its policing practices and protocols and allegations of possible misconduct not just by local, county officials federal agencies as well.

Last August, the Cayuga Nation’s land-into-trust federal application had been denied by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs following the destruction of several Nation-owned properties overnight as well as a violent confrontation between Nation police officers and demonstrators at a press conference along State Route 89 in February 2020.

Shortly after that violent clash, the Cayuga Nation Police Department announced a number of arrests among Haudenosaunee peoples, none of which actually materialized following a yearlong investigation led by FingerLakes1.com.

In the case of Charles Bowman, a non-Indigenous Fayette resident, he alleged that Nation officers who detained him on February 29, 2020, never transported him to the proper non-tribal law authorities: Seneca Falls Police Department, Seneca County Sheriff’s Office or New York State Police resulting in an ongoing civil lawsuit against Pathfinders Solutions and Cayuga Nation Police Department Superintendent Mark Lincoln.

Fifteen-months later, however, Bowman was later indicted with two criminal charges by Seneca County District Attorney Mark Sinkiewicz even though he was supposed to be entrusted in the custody of local, state law enforcement personnel.

But part of the perception issue for Galanda regarding Alcott’s statement rests in the legal interpretation of reservations, as defined by 18 U.S. Code § 1151 which encompasses any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States Government.

Since their reservation lands are not currently held in trust by the U.S. Department of Interior, Galanda believes that the unanimous ruling is non-applicable based on preexisting case law in the particular case of the Cayuga Nation a checker-boarded Nation of 114-acres that’s scattered throughout Seneca and Cayuga counties.