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News >  Idaho

Federal officials giving tribal police more authority

Coeur d'Alene Tribal Police Officer John Dressler hands Renae Stentz the paperwork after her boat passed a safety inspection on Aug. 26 at Mowry State Park on Lake Coeur d’Alene. (Colin Mulvany)
Coeur d'Alene Tribal Police Officer John Dressler hands Renae Stentz the paperwork after her boat passed a safety inspection on Aug. 26 at Mowry State Park on Lake Coeur d’Alene. (Colin Mulvany)

BOISE – Law enforcement is being hampered in Indian Country by what federal authorities describe as jurisdictional gaps.

So they’re working with three Idaho tribes, including the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, to federalize tribal police, giving officers the authority to issue citations to non-Indians on the reservation for some minor offenses - with the backing of federal courts.

Once the lengthy process is completed – likely in time for next summer’s boating season – non-tribal members who violate boating laws on the southern third of Lake Coeur d’Alene could be issued federal citations by tribal officers. The southern third of the lake belongs to the tribe; the U.S. Supreme Court decided that in 2001.

“The lake is obviously an area of contention … that a lot of folks are concerned about, and certainly the tribe is,” said Coeur d’Alene tribal legislative director Helo Hancock. “It’s something we’ve fought hard for and we want to protect, and we certainly want law and order on the lake too.”

Law enforcement in Indian Country is a complicated web, with tribal courts handling minor crimes by tribal members on reservations, state authorities prosecuting non-Indians, and federal authorities prosecuting major crimes by Indians on reservations and areas where the other jurisdictions overlap.

The Coeur d’Alenes unsuccessfully pushed legislation for the past two years to establish cross-deputization for tribal officers with counties. After the latest bill failed by one vote in the Idaho House of Representatives, the Benewah County Sheriff’s Office agreed in April to cross-deputize five Coeur d’Alene officers, which allows them to cite non-tribal members into state court.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe has long had a cross-deputization agreement with Kootenai County, and it had one with Benewah County until the sheriff there revoked it in October 2007. Relations between the county and the tribe deteriorated further in July 2008 after tribal police marine officers pulled over Benewah County Commission Chairman Jack Buell and his wife, Eleanor, for violating a no-wake zone on Lake Coeur d’Alene. A confrontation ensued in which Buell and his wife vociferously questioned the tribal officers’ authority, according to police reports, asking questions such as, “Do you Indians know where you are?” Eleanor Buell was accused of striking one of the officers.

This spring, the St. Maries Police Department cross-deputized five tribal officers, and the tribe cross-deputized four St. Maries police officers. “Most people, when they need a police officer, they just need a police officer that’ll handle the situation – they don’t care the color of their shirt,” said St. Maries Mayor Tami Holdahl, who is also a Coeur d’Alene tribal police officer.

But the limited cross-deputization didn’t fill all the gaps in jurisdictions, Hancock said. Plus, he said, “There is not a formal cross-deputization agreement with Benewah County, and as such, the sheriff could pull those officers’ deputization at any time for any reason he wants. We need a reliable backup to provide continuity in law enforcement regardless of who the sheriff may be now or down the road.”

Federal authorities have an existing process for handling petty offenses on “federal enclaves” within states, such as national forests, Air Force bases, and Veterans Administration facilities. A Central Violations Bureau, or CVB, in San Antonio, Texas, processes all those citations, and then they’re handled through the federal court in each state.

That’s the process tribes would tap into with their federalized officers, said U.S. Magistrate Judge Candy Dale, who is coordinating the effort for the federal court in Idaho.

“It is ultimately to try to help fill in some of those gaps,” she said.

Dale travels to Coeur d’Alene once a month to hear North Idaho CVB cases, which typically consist of citations for off-road vehicle violations, littering or underage drinking at campgrounds, overstaying camping limits, unsafe campfires and timber thefts.

Dale and the U.S. attorney’s office for Idaho are looking into bringing certain reservation offenses under that CVB program, including boating and dock violations on Lake Coeur d’Alene within the Coeur d’Alene reservation, and possibly natural resource violations, trespassing or other offenses on the Nez Perce and Shoshone-Bannock reservations.

“It was an option we made each of the tribes aware of,” said Wendy Olson, U.S. attorney for Idaho. Half a dozen states already use the process for infractions on tribal reservations.

“It operates in many instances like any sort of traffic infraction or parking infraction would – if you just want to pay the fine, you don’t have to come to court,” Olson said. But people do have a right to demand a trial, or to contest their fines in court, and that’s what the monthly docket at the federal courthouse in Coeur d’Alene addresses. Similar sessions also are held in Boise, Moscow and Pocatello every other month.

“The advantage is there’s an enforcement mechanism for the tribe,” Olson said. “The non-tribal members, once they leave the reservation, if they are cited into tribal court – there’s nothing the tribe can do to enforce its violation.”

That’s because tribal courts don’t have jurisdiction over non-tribal members – but federal courts do.

“The ultimate goal is really to have community safety, public safety, be as similar in terms of enforcement mechanisms in Indian Country as they are in other parts of the state of Idaho with federal jurisdiction,” Olson said.

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