SoCal Tribe Says Aggressive Sheriff Held Council Against Their Will

RIVERSIDE (CN) — The Soboba tribe of Southern California claims the Riverside County sheriff violated its sovereignty, terrorized its people, falsely imprisoned its tribal council and coerced officials into handing over hundreds of hours of surveillance video while investigating a missing-person case.

Relying on two illegal search warrants, Sheriff Stanley Smith “deployed a SWAT team, helicopter, canine units, and countless … officers and vehicles, all for the purpose of downloading video surveillance and searching a single site on the reservation,” the tribe says in its federal complaint.

The four-day ordeal — involving “low-altitude hovering and flights over the Soboba Reservation by [a sheriff’s] helicopter” and “numerous vehicles and heavily armed officers” surrounding the administration building — “terrorized and intimidated the Soboba Reservation community, necessitated the closing of two nearby tribal schools,” the tribe says.

The sheriff’s department said in an email Tuesday that it does not comment on pending litigation.

The Soboba Band of San Luiseño Indians have a 7,000-acre reservation near Hemet, in Riverside County, about 100 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. Many of its 1,200 members are economically dependent upon the tribal casino and agriculture. The five bands of San Luiseños are among the tribes that settled near the Catholic missions in the early days of California’s recorded history.

The tribe’s attorney, Bay Area Indian law expert George Forman, did not return a call seeking comment.

According to the tribe’s lawsuit, the sheriff’s office in late May 2016 was looking for Jerome Salgado, the missing brother of the chairman of the Cahuilla Band of Indians. News outlets reported that Salgado’s body was found in mid-June in a shallow grave in a remote, hilly area of the Soboba reservation.

Salgado, 37, had suffered traumatic injuries “at the hands of another,” according to one newspaper report.

The tribe says sheriff’s investigators requested surveillance video recordings from the tribe and its casino — a separate video system — covering May 20 through May 22.

The tribe and casino complied, as they had for many similar requests in the past. But because of a computer glitch, an hour or two of casino surveillance video was missing, according to the lawsuit.

On the evening of May 26, 2016, defendant Sheriff’s Investigator Nelson Gomez asked a state judge for a search warrant for some surveillance videos by falsely claiming the footage “was used as the means of committing a felony” or that it “tends to show that a felony has been committed” or similar allegations, according to the complaint.

Before dawn on Friday, May 27, the sheriff’s SWAT team, helicopter, canine unit and more descended on the reservation to serve two search warrants. The officers took over the tribe’s administrative building, where they “barred persons with lawful business therein from entering the building, threatened to break down the door to the secured room in which the tribal government computer servers were located, threatened to remove the tribal government’s computer servers … for an indefinite time period, and continuously preempted the use of the tribal government’s computer servers until almost noon on Monday, May 30th.”

All this, though Gomez “had no reasonable, good-faith basis for believing” any of the surveillance footage being sought was connected to a felony, the tribe says.

Tribal IT personnel spent “nearly 200 person-hours” downloading surveillance footage for the officers. By the time the officers left, they’d collected footage comprising “a complete video record of two weeks of the doings, comings and goings of the entire reservation community.”

Now, more than a year later, the sheriff’s department refuses to return the footage or delete it from departmental computers, the tribe says.

It claims the sheriff had no authority to enter the reservation without permission and no jurisdiction to obtain the warrant because no federal law gives state courts authority to issue search warrants for Native American lands.

Further, the sheriff’s actions “violated and continues to violate the Soboba Band’s right to self-government under the Constitution,” the tribe says.

The tribe seeks an injunction and damages for trespass, nuisance, privacy violations, false imprisonment of tribal officials, conversion and violations of the state Electronic Communication Protection Act.

Among its claims are that the sheriff imprisoned Tribal Chairwoman Rosemary Morillo and four of the five-member Tribal Council and held them for hours against their will: Tribal Council Vice Chairman Isaiah Vivanco, and Tribal Council Members Monica Herrera, Kelli Hurtado and Rose Salgado. Tribal Council Chairman Scott Cozart is a plaintiff but does not say he was among those imprisoned.

In addition to the county and Sheriff Sniff, defendants include sheriff’s Investigator Nelson Gomez, Lt. Mark Rigali, Lt. Herman Lopez and Det. Marek Janecka.

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