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Can tribal police arrest non-Native people?

On Behalf of | Aug 13, 2021 | Criminal Defense |

Most people in New Mexico know that there are some strict demarcations between state land and tribal land – and the people who live there. This extends to criminal justice. 

If a tribal police officer witnesses or suspects criminal behavior by a non-Native person on their land, do they have the authority to do anything? Yes and no.

Recent Supreme Court ruling clarified what actions tribal officers can take

This year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that tribal officers could investigate and detain, but not arrest, non-Native people on tribal land if they suspect them of committing a crime. However, they need to notify state or other law enforcement so that they can come to the scene and take over. This brought some clarity for tribal officers who are bound by a 1978 ruling that tribal nations have no criminal jurisdiction over non-Natives – even on their land.

But what if state or local law enforcement can’t or won’t come out to take someone into custody? Zia Pueblo’s governor, who’s also a law enforcement officer, says that there are times when law enforcement agencies can’t get to the reservation for hours to pick up a suspect – if they come at all. 

Some legal scholars see this latest Supreme Court ruling as “the beginning of the end” for that initial ruling more than four decades ago that Native officers say just isn’t workable. They note that Congress may be the entity to carry it forward. For example, there’s a provision in the latest reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) – which has yet to be passed — that would allow some tribal jurisdiction over non-Native people suspected of domestic or sexual abuse on tribal land.

Some Native Americans see it as a double standard that reflects continued discrimination against them. As the Zia Pueblo governor says, “We don’t have jurisdiction [over non-Natives] here on our reservation, but when us Native Americans get off the reservation, they have full jurisdiction over us.”

Regardless of whether you’re a Native American or a non-Native, it’s essential to know what your rights are if you’re detained and/or arrested anywhere in the state and if officers acted according to the law as it now stands. It’s wise to seek legal guidance to protect your rights.