Tribe Can’t Sue for Members Who Claim Racial Profiling in Traffic Tickets

(CN) – Individual members of a Southern California tribe – not the tribe itself – can sue San Bernardino County over traffic tickets handed out on the reservation, a Ninth Circuit panel ruled Monday.

At the center of the dispute are four traffic citations issued to members of Chemehuevi Indian Tribe. The tribe sued San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon, District Attorney Michael Ramos, County Counsel Jean-Rene Basle, and other officials in July 2015, claiming that officers must stop “racially profiling, arresting and issuing citations for violations of the California Motor Vehicle Code to members of the tribe while driving vehicles on fee and trust land within the boundaries of the Chemehuevi Indian Reservation.”

The plaintiffs claim attempts to prosecute traffic violations on reservation land violate federal laws which prohibit California from enforcing its laws that regulate – but does not prohibit – tribal members’ conduct inside a reservation.

In response, San Bernardino County argued two of the four citations were issued on land that does not belong to the 30,650-acre Chemehuevi Indian Reservation near Lake Havasu. Further, Deputy County Counsel Miles Kowalski originally told the tribe’s counsel “that the sheriff would continue to issue citations and the district attorney and county counsel would continue to prosecute the Indians whose cases were still pending in state court and in the future against members of the tribe while driving on the reservation for violations of the California Vehicle Code, specifically: (a) driving on a suspended license, (b) driving with expired registration, (c) driving without proof of insurance, (d) driving without use of seat belts, and (e) driving without valid license plates,” according to the tribe’s original complaint.

A federal judge initially barred the county from “citing, arresting, impounding the vehicles of, and prosecuting Chemehuevi tribal members for on-reservation violations” of California regulatory vehicle laws. The injunction also prohibited citations in Section 36, a tract of land that was disputed tribal territory.

The judge later granted summary judgment to the county, concluding Section 36 was not part of the Chemehuevi Reservation and therefore not “Indian country” under the law. The court found the plaintiffs had failed to allege “a well-established constitutional violation” for their civil rights claims, saying federal law “is concerned with the relationship between individuals and the state, not the distribution of power between state, federal, or tribal governments,” and therefore neither the “right to be free of state regulation” nor “the right to tribal government.”

The tribe appealed, and on Monday a panel made up of U.S. Circuit Judges Kim McLane Wardlaw and Andrew Hurwitz, and Senior U.S. District Judge Edward R. Korman found that while the four individuals who were ticketed can sue, the tribe cannot sue on behalf of its members.

Writing for the panel, Hurwitz said an Indian tribe cannot assert its members’ individual rights as a “parent of the nation” in a civil rights action because “the tribe would have to ‘articulate an interest apart from the interests of particular private parties,’ i.e., ‘be more than a nominal party,’ and ‘express a quasi-sovereign interest.’” However, quasi-sovereign interests are not individual rights and therefore inconsistent with the law allowing individuals to sue the government for civil rights violations, Hurwitz said.

However, the panel did an analysis of the history of the Chemehuevi Indian Reservation going back to 1853 and found the disputed territory of Section 36 is “Indian country” and San Bernardino County cannot enforce state regulatory laws there.

Hurwitz is a Barack Obama appointee. Wardlaw was appointed by Bill Clinton and Korman, sitting by designation from the Eastern District of New York, was appointed by Ronald Reagan.

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