Navajo lawmakers have passed legislation prohibiting non-tribal officers from searching or arresting American Indian suspects on the reservation absent a cross-commission agreement.
The legislation approved last week came in response to a New Mexico Supreme Court decision in a 2005 drunken driving case involving a Navajo man. The court said sobriety tests performed by a sheriff’s deputy on the reservation did not threaten Navajo sovereignty because the tribe had no rules or procedures on how to deal with the situation.
The new law seeks to prevent encroachment by outside law enforcement and compel county and state officers to enter cross-commission agreements with the tribe or the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. It initially failed in a special session of the Tribal Council in Window Rock but was approved on a recall vote.
The federal government has jurisdiction over major crimes on the reservation when the suspect, victim or both are American Indian. But determining who has jurisdiction other times can be tricky, particularly on the eastern side of the reservation known as the checkerboard for its mix of state, private and reservation land.
In the 2005 case, a San Juan County sheriff’s deputy stopped David Harrison about one-third of a mile inside the boundary of the Navajo reservation in northwestern New Mexico. The deputy saw Harrison speeding off the reservation and stopped him to administer DWI tests.
The deputy later obtained an arrest warrant that was handled according to Navajo requirements. The deputy unsuccessfully sought assistance from Navajo police.
Harrison appealed his conviction, contending that the deputy didn’t have the power to detain him on tribal lands and collect the evidence used against him.
Navajo Public Safety Director Samson Cowboy said the deputy rightfully handled the situation and that a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling already allows New Mexico law enforcement to go onto tribal lands to investigative off-reservation crimes by an Indian.
But tribal justice officials contended that Navajo sovereignty would be damaged if the drunken driving conviction was affirmed, and Navajo lawmakers again brought up the sovereignty issue in debate last week.
The New Mexico high court said the legal dispute could have been avoided had the Navajos and San Juan County had a cross-commission agreement to empower state officers to act as a tribal officer in some instances.
Incoming San Juan County Sheriff Ken Christesen said he will expect his deputies to pursue tribal members suspected in crimes when necessary but call Navajo police if that pursuit crosses on to the reservation.
A cross-commission agreement isn’t the answer, he said, citing the lack of jail space on the Navajo Nation, maximum sentences of one year for a single crime and the time it would take for deputies to travel to courts in reservation towns.
“I’m not willing at this point to have San Juan County sheriff’s deputies assist at the expense of the taxpayers, traveling on the reservation and handling their law enforcement issues,” Christesen said Tuesday. “We’ll certainly assist them if we can.”
Navajo lawmaker Edmund Yazzie cautioned colleagues that tribal members who were drinking and driving off-reservation would speed up when approaching tribal land. The former McKinley County sheriff’s deputy in New Mexico said he has had drunken driving citations that he issued thrown out when he unknowingly traveled onto the reservation to ticket someone.
Requesting a Navajo officer is ideal, he said, but hours could pass before one arrives or none may be available.
“It’s going to have to take a lot of communication, good working relationships with state police, county sheriffs and Navajo Nation police,” Yazzie said.