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Do Native American reservation officers hold the same jurisdictions as ordinary police officers?


Docket No. 19-1414

Date Granted: November, 20, 2020

Date Argued: March 23, 2021

Date Decided: June 1, 2021

When Joshua James Cooley parked his truck on the side of the highway in the Montana Crow Reservation, he did not expect to be approached by a police officer. Police officer James Saylor, a member of the Crow tribe, noted Cooley had bloodshot, watery eyes and did not look like a member of the tribe. Under suspicion that Cooley had been engaging in unlawful activity, the Officer searched Cooley’s truck and found two semi-automatic rifles, a glass pipe, and a bag with methamphetamines. In April 2016, Joshua James Cooley was indicted by a Grand Jury on drug and firearms charges. More specifically, possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamines.

The district court approved a request to suppress made by Cooley, who argued that since he was not a citizen of the tribe, the officer had no jurisdiction to arrest him and violated the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968. along with numerous other SCOTUS decisions affirming Native Tribes have no jurisdiction over non- natives. Therefore, the evidence gathered by Officer Saylor should not be admissible in his trial.

The district court concluded Officer Saylor was operating outside his authority as a Crow Tribe law enforcement official and lacked the authority to investigate non-apparent state or federal law breaches by a non-Indian on a public right of way (the Montana highway) crossing a reservation. The government appealed, and the Ninth Circuit upheld the decision. The government then petitioned for certiorari regarding tribal law enforcement jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court granted the petition.


Can a police officer for a Native American tribe detain and search a non-tribe member within a reservation on suspicion of violating a state or federal law?

OUTCOME: 9-0 Unanimous Majority Opinion for the United States

The officer’s arrest was deemed constitutional in a unanimous vote. Historically, reservation officers have been allowed to apprehend a non-tribal person if tribe members (1) “enter consensual relationships with the tribe or its members, through commercial dealing, contracts, leases, or other arrangements”, or (2) "when that conduct threatens or has some direct effect on the political integrity, the economic security, or the health or welfare of the tribe.” This second circumstance is critical to understanding the Supreme Court's majority decision. In this situation, it was clearly stated and agreed upon that the case involving Cooley's arrest perfectly reflected the second exception. Because Mr. Cooley was carrying weapons and illegal drugs in the Crow reservation, he threatened the community and was, therefore, allowed to be apprehended by tribal police.


Side 1: Cooley (Respondent)

  • A non-tribal U.S. citizen caught possessing illegal drugs and firearms while traveling through a public right of way.

  • Respondent Argument: (Dissenting) Tribal laws dictate that the reservation officer did not have jurisdiction to apprehend Cooley.

Side 2: United States (Petitioner)

  • Petitioner Argument: (Majority) Because Cooley was traveling on a highway that passes through the reservation and poses a potential threat to the well-being of the tribe, the arrest was warranted.

Concurring Opinion

  • The concurring opinion by Justice Alito agrees with the majority but limits the rationale to:

    • (a) stop a non-Indian motorist if the officer has reasonable suspicion that the motorist may violate or has violated federal or state law”

    • “(b) conduct a search to the extent necessary to protect himself or others”

    • “(c) if the tribal officer has probable cause, detain the motorist for the period of time reasonably necessary for a non-tribal officer to arrive on the scene.”


Despite this case's seemingly simple and blunt ruling, the outcome is significant. This case helps strike a balance between public safety and the rights of individuals while on tribal lands.

When we look at the history of Police SCOTUS cases, US V. Cooley solidifies. Cayuga Nation et al. note that the case Terry v. Ohio permits police officers to briefly stop a person of suspicion to make reasonable inquiries to verify the credibility of their suspicions. Cayuga Nation et al. note the two factors contributing to the outcome of the Terry v. Ohio case: (1) a present public interest in identifying and halting crime and (2) a present public interest in protecting an officer’s well-being when engaging with unknown and unpredictable suspects.

The majority decision in United States v. Cooley allows for tribal law enforcement to have the jurisdiction they need to establish and maintain security in their respective territory, a crucial decision that supports Tribal autonomy within reservations.

Tribal reservations are Federally recognized autonomous regions and, to an extent, sovereign as proclaimed by Article I, Section VIII of the Constitution, which states Congress "shall regulate commerce... enter into treaties with foreign nations and Indian tribes". This, along with other acts such as the Indian Self-determination and Education Assistance Act, ensures the tribe's autonomy and jurisdiction remain protected. This act allowed them to be responsible for programs and services administered to them on behalf of the Secretary of the Interior through contractual agreements.

The unanimous outcome of this case only solidifies the protection of tribal autonomy and security within tribal reservation land.


  • (#court case), #case study)


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