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Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Judge Advances Tribe’s Dispute With Inyo County

A federal judge has advanced a lawsuit with major implications for Indian police agencies’ powers, allowing claims against a California county that targeted a tribe for detaining a non-Indian on tribal land to stand. 

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – A federal judge has advanced a lawsuit with major implications for Indian police agencies’ powers, allowing claims against a California county that targeted a tribe for detaining a non-Indian on tribal land to stand.

U.S. District Judge Dale Drozd rejected Inyo County’s motion to dismiss the Bishop Paiute Tribe’s lawsuit, ruling that the county cited shaky case law. Drozd called the county’s reliance on a 2001 Ninth Circuit case involving county sheriff liability “puzzling” and “inapposite” of its argument.

“At worst, the decision in Brewster is effectively fatal to the county’s motion to dismiss since the plaintiff there was allowed to maintain suit against the county on the basis of the investigate law enforcement actions of the county’s sheriff – precisely what plaintiff seeks to do here,” Drozd wrote in the Jan. 10 order.

The tribe’s lawsuit surrounds a 2014 incident involving Paiute police officer Daniel Johnson who used a Taser on a non-Indian woman while responding to a domestic violence call on the reservation. Johnson detained and handcuffed the unnamed woman for violating a state court-issued restraining order and tribal trespass laws. The woman was later released after Inyo County law enforcement arrived.

Weeks later, Inyo County District Attorney Thomas Hardy charged Johnson with battery, unlawful use of a Taser, false imprisonment for detaining a non-Indian and falsely representing himself as a state official. The county also issued the tribal police department a cease-and-desist order demanding it stop enforcing state laws or carrying guns off the reservation.

The tribe, located on an 877-acre reservation in the upper Owens Valley above the Sierra town Bishop, responded with a lawsuit against the county, Hardy and Sheriff William Lutze. It seeks declarations that Johnson’s arrest and the cease-and-desist order were illegal and that the tribe has the authority to investigate, detain and transfer “non-Indian violators” to the proper authority.

U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell dismissed the complaint in July 2015, citing the tribe’s agreement not to enforce state laws in response to Lutze’s cease-and-desist order and for lack of jurisdiction.

The Bishop Paiute Tribe successfully appealed Burrell’s decision. A Ninth Circuit panel gave the suit new life last July, reversing and remanding the lawsuit to federal court in Fresno and reassigned.

Drozd, appointed by President Barack Obama in 2014, slammed the county’s argument of failure to state a claim, noting longstanding precedent shows tribal officers can legally detain and transport non-Indians.

In Ortiz-Barraza, the Ninth Circuit ruled a tribal officer that found marijuana during a traffic stop properly held the suspect at a tribal jail to be transferred to federal drug agents.

He said the same logic applies to the tribe’s lawsuit.

“Johnson, by virtue of his status as a duly sworn officer of the Bishop Paiute Tribe, possessed the inherent authority to detain the suspect in the course of investigating whether she had violated the state court protective order,” Drozd wrote in the 17-page ruling.

Neither parties’ attorneys immediately responded to a request for comment on Drozd’s ruling.

Bishop Paiute Tribe attorney Dorothy Alther told Courthouse News last year that the case has major implications for all tribes.

“The tribe and counties need certainty and clarification on tribal inherent authority to ensure safety on tribal lands. No tribal police officer should be subjected to criminal prosecution for carrying out his or her duties,” Alther said in a July 2017 email.

Alther is with California Indian Legal Services in Escondido, California.

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Categories / Courts, Government, Regional

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