Tribe Denied Funding for Police Lose in 9th Circuit
(CN) - Despite high crime rates on Indian reservations nationwide, a small California tribe had been properly denied federal funding for a police force, the 9th Circuit ruled Wednesday.
The Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cupeno Indians, a tiny community occupying a 25,000-acre reservation about 80 miles northeast of San Diego, sued the secretary of the Interior and others after the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) denied the tribe's request for $746,110 to enhance its police force, which currently consists of one part-time officer.
The tribe has been trying to build a police force since the 1930s. While California had taken over responsibility for policing the reservation after the passage of the federal Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, it said the "promise ... has been largely empty, and the sheriff's response to complaints of criminal activity on the reservation is slow or non-existent."
U.S. District Judge Anthony Battaglia ruled in the tribe's favor, finding that the denial of funds had violated the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDA) and the tribe's right to equal protection.
A three-judge federal appeals panel reversed in a unanimous ruling on Wednesday, while at the same time expressing concern about the rising numbers of violent crimes, especially rapes, on Indian reservations.
"If the question is whether the secretary's declination of the tribe's contract application complied with the ISDA, the answer is yes because the tribe requested more money than the BIA would have spent on law enforcement on the reservation," Judge Mary Murguia wrote for the panel. "If the question is whether the BIA should have spent money on law enforcement on the reservation, it is simply not our role to answer. We have serious doubts that the funding of law enforcement on the Los Coyotes Reservation is adequate, but that problem is unfortunately not unique to this tribe. The tribe has presented no legal theory that allows us to review the level or distribution of funding for law enforcement in Indian Country."
Citing reports by, among others, The New York Times, the Government Accountability Office and Amnesty International, Murguia noted that "in some American Indian communities women are murdered at a rate 10 times the national average."
She also added that "thirty-four percent of American Indian women will be raped during their lifetime, compared to less than one in five women nationwide."
"It is hard to dispute that Indian Country may be one of the most dangerous places in the United States," she wrote.
The tribe's attorney, Dorothy Alther of California Indian Legal Services, said Tuesday that the ruling will impact tribal services in all of the so-called Public Law 280 states - those that give state police officers some jurisdiction on Indian land.
"This case was not just about Los Coyotes but all tribes in PL 280 states," Alther said in an email. "The ruling provides no incentive for the Office of Justice Services to look at funding a BIA law enforcement program in a PL 280 state. The decision also could have impacts to other programs such as tribal courts. Currently OJS does not fund tribal courts and so our tribal courts, under the court's ruling, cannot obtain funding through a 638 contract."