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Tension Between Tribe and California Sheriff

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - A California sheriff and district attorney illegally arrested and prosecuted a Paiute policeman for "impersonating" a police officer, because he tried to enforce a restraining order against a non-Indian on the reservation, the tribe claims in Federal Court.

The Bishop Paiute Tribe, a federally recognized tribe in the upper Owens Valley above Bishop, claims the Inyo County Sheriff's Department and its district attorney violated federal common law by arresting the tribal officer, who was simply carrying out his lawful duties.

Tribal law enforcement officer Daniel Johnson received a call on Christmas Eve last year from a tribal member on the reservation who said that his non-Indian ex-wife was violating a tribal and state domestic violence protective order by being at his home and causing a disturbance, according to the complaint.

The ex-wife, who is not named in the lawsuit, was well-known to tribal and local law enforcement for having been the subject of numerous police calls and for violating a state protective order, the complaint states.

The Inyo County Sheriff's Department already had arrested her on one previous occasion for violating the order, and Johnson had cited her four times for violations of active tribal protective orders, the tribe says in the lawsuit.

On Christmas Eve, Johnson arrived at the scene in a marked tribal police vehicle, wearing a tribal police uniform, and identified himself to the woman as "tribal police," the complaint states.

"After informing the suspect that she was not allowed to be at the tribal member's home by order of both the tribal and state courts, the suspect became angry, verbally abusive, and insisted that she had a right to be at the home to visit her son," the tribe says in the complaint.

The woman refused to get out of the car and continued to yell that she had the right to see her son, according to the lawsuit.

"Officer Johnson repeatedly ordered the suspect out of her vehicle but she resisted and continued to yell that she had the right to see her son. As Officer Johnson tried to remove her from the vehicle, she began kicking at Officer Johnson, making contact with his left inner thigh. At this point, Officer Johnson removed his Taser and placed it in 'Drive Stun' mode," the complaint states.

Johnson warned the woman that he would deploy his Taser if she refused to exit the vehicle, the tribe says.

When the woman continued to be defiant, Johnson applied his Taser, but it was ineffective, so he shot it again after the woman still would not exit the vehicle, according to the complaint.

An Inyo County sheriff's deputy arrived and tried to calm the situation, which had escalated as family members gathered outside of the home and verbally abused Johnson, the complaint states.

The sheriff's deputy called for assistance from the Bishop Police Department because he and Johnson were outnumbered by the hostile woman and family members, the complaint states.

"Officer Johnson finally gained control of the suspect's left arm and was able to remove her from the vehicle. The deputy assisted by taking hold of the suspect's right arm as Officer Johnson took the suspect to the ground. While on the ground, the deputy placed the suspect's right arm behind her back and Officer Johnson proceeded to handcuff her," the complaint states.

The deputy ran a check on the woman and determined that she had an active restraining order against her and was on probation with the condition that she was not to contact her ex-husband, according to the complaint.

Because the ex-husband did not want to have his ex-wife arrested, the sheriff's officers did not arrest her, but cited her for trespass, nuisance and violating the tribal and state protective orders, the complaint states.

The woman complained that her stomach was injured, but refused medical aid, the complaint states.

On Jan. 5 this year, Inyo County District Attorney Thomas Hardy filed a felony criminal complaint against Johnson, accusing him of three felonies and a misdemeanor in the incident.

The next day, Inyo County Sheriff William Lutze "issued a 'Cease and Desist Order' to the tribe ordering all tribal police to cease and desist enforcement of California statutes and possessing firearms outside of tribal property. The letter accuses tribal officers of exercising 'state police powers under the color of authority of Bishop Paiute tribal law ...' and emphasizes that tribal police have no legal authority to enforce any state or federal laws on or off the reservation and have only the rights of 'private citizens,'" the complaint states.

The tribe said it assured the sheriff that tribal officers would not exercise state police authority - which they had not been doing - and would carry their firearms off the reservation only in going to and from work or when their patrol required them to cross highways.

The criminal case against Johnson is pending. He is charged with assault with a stun gun, false imprisonment, falsely representing himself to be a public officer, and simple battery.

The tribe says the arrest and prosecution violate federal common law and interferes with the tribe's authority to maintain a police department and protect public safety on its reservation.

"It is unfortunate and regrettable that the Inyo County Sheriff's Office and district attorney have taken the unprecedented actions against Officer Johnson and fail to recognize the inherent tribal sovereignty of the Bishop Paiute Tribe (including the authority bestowed to our Tribal Police Department). The Bishop Paiute Tribal Police Department continues its commitment to public safety and the protection of all citizens and residents of the reservation and surrounding communities," the tribe said in a statement.

The Inyo County District Attorney's office said that it respects the sovereignty of the Bishop Paiute Tribe, but that this case has nothing to do with tribal sovereignty.

The charges are based on allegations that Johnson used unlawful force on another person, and these accusations were investigated with the same scrutiny that would be applied to any other case, according to the District Attorney's Office.

The tribe asks the court to enjoin the sheriff's office from arresting and criminally charging the tribe's authorized police officers for carrying out their duties or otherwise interfering with tribal officers while executing their duty.

It also seeks a declaration that its officers have the authority on its reservation to stop, restrain and investigate violations of tribal, state and federal law, and detain or transport a non-Indian violator to the proper authorities.

The tribe is represented by Dorothy Alther with California Indian Legal Services, of Escondido, and Jasmine Andreas, with the California Indian Legal Services office in Bishop.

The defendants are Inyo County, Sheriff Lutze, and District Attorney Hardy.

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