Grant Christensen on Cooley and Tribal Law Enforcement

Grant Christensen has posted “Getting Cooley Right: The Inherent Criminal Powers of Tribal Law Enforcement,” forthcoming in the UC Davis Law Review, on SSRN.


While the Supreme Court regularly decides cases defining the limits of the criminal jurisdiction of tribal courts, when it heard United States v. Cooley in 2021 it had not decided a case about the procedural powers of tribal law enforcement in more than a century. Across more than five decades lower courts at all levels struggled to decide whether the inherent criminal powers of tribal law enforcement are coterminous with the jurisdiction of tribal courts or whether tribal officers may have their own set of inherent powers distinct from the power to prosecute. This Article examines the inconsistent split in authority that existed before Cooley and anticipates the future misreading of inherent criminal power by lower courts. It argues that now that the Court has divorced the inherent criminal power of tribal law enforcement from the criminal jurisdictional power of tribal courts, tribal officers may stop, detain, search, and investigate anyone whose criminal conduct poses a danger to the health and welfare of the tribal community. The Article bolsters its application by using the first cases decided by lower courts in the post-Cooley era as artifacts to examine the full implications of the recognition of inherent criminal power exercised by tribal law enforcement.

Texas Appellate Court Suppresses Evidence Acquired by Tribal Police because of State’s Failure to Prove Tribe Had Power to Detain under Cooley

Here are the materials in State of Texas v. Astorga (Tex. Ct. App. El Paso):


State Brief

Astorga Brief


Letter Brief

Ysleta del Sur Pueblo

Liz Reese Full Commentary on the Cooley Decision

From SCOTUSBlog here.

An excerpt:

On Tuesday in United States v. Cooley, the Supreme Court upheld a power that tribal governments have long assumed they possessed as a basic necessity of ensuring public safety. The court held that tribal governments — and thus their police officers — retain the power to temporarily stop, and if necessary, search non-Indians traveling on public rights-of-way (highways) through reservations for suspected violations of federal or state laws. The unanimous opinion was authored by Justice Stephen Breyer. The decision represents an important affirmation of tribal inherent sovereign power by the new court and the first time the court has ever found that a tribe’s interest in addressing a threat to its political integrity, economic security, health or welfare was strong enough for the tribe to exert government authority of any kind over a non-Indian.

SCOTUS Reverses in United States v. Cooley

Here is the unanimous opinion from Justice Breyer.

An excerpt:

The question presented is whether an Indian tribe’s police officer has authority to detain temporarily and to search a non-Indian on a public right-of-way that runs through an Indian reservation. The search and detention, we assume, took place based on a potential violation of state or federal law prior to the suspect’s transport to the proper nontribal authorities for prosecution.
We have previously noted that a tribe retains inherent sovereign authority to address “conduct [that] threatens or has some direct effect on . . . the health or welfare of the tribe.” Montana v. United States, 450 U. S. 544, 566 (1981); see also Strate v. A–1 Contractors, 520 U. S. 438, 456, n. 11 (1997). We believe this statement of law governs here. And we hold the tribal officer possesses the authority at issue.

Another excerpt:

More broadly, cross-deputization agreements are difficult to reach, and they often require negotiation between other authorities and the tribes over such matters as training, reciprocal authority to arrest, the “geographical reach of the agreements, the jurisdiction of the parties, liability of officers performing under the agreements, and sovereign immunity.” Fletcher, Fort, & Singel, Indian Country Law Enforcement and Cooperative Public Safety Agreements, 89 Mich. Bar J. 42, 44 (2010).

Here are the briefs and other background materials.

Amicus Briefs Supporting Petitioner in United States v. Cooley


19-1414 Amici SiouxTribes

19-1414 Amicus Brief of NationalIndigenousWomensResourceCenter

19-1414 Indian Law Scholars Cooley Brief

19-1414 tsac Former U.S. Attorneys

19-1414 tsac Members of Congress

19-1414 tsac The Cayuga Nation

19-1414 Ute Amici Brief

Final NCAI-Tribal Governments Amici Brief-US v Cooley 1-15-21

Other Cooley materials are here.