Tribe Fights Racial Profiling on the Rez

     RIVERSIDE, Calif. (CN) – San Bernardino County sheriff’s officers racially profile Chemehuevi Indians on their own reservation, issuing them traffic citations they have no jurisdiction to give, the tribe claims in Federal Court.
     The Chemehuevi Indian Tribe sued San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon, District Attorney Michael Ramos, County Counsel Jean-Rene Basle, and other officials on July 30. They ask the court to order the sheriff and his officers to 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.”
     They also want the District Attorney’s Office and county attorneys ordered to stop “prosecuting the Indians or any members of the tribe for said violations.”
     The 30,650-acre Chemehuevi Indian Reservation is near Lake Havasu in Havasu Lake, Calif. The Chemehuevi – “those who play with fish” – have lived in the Mojave Desert along the Colorado River basin for thousands of years. Their language is considered part of the Southern Paiute or Numic branch of Uto-Aztecan, an enormous language family whose members live as far south as modern-day Mexico City and beyond. Fewer than 400 Chemehuevi live on the reservation today, though members of the tribe live on other reservations of what are known today as the Colorado River tribes.
     The tribe says in the lawsuit that the California Vehicle Code is civil, not criminal law, so it does not apply to American Indians driving on Indian reservations.
     “By entering the exterior boundaries of the reservation, racially profiling, and discriminatorily issuing citations to tribal members, including stopping tribal members without probable cause and seizing tribal members’ property for minor offenses, the county officials’ actions are intimidating tribal members and making them feel unsafe on their own reservation,” the tribe claims. “By taking these actions, the county officials are interfering with the tribe’s ability to govern itself and its members by preventing the tribe from determining to what extent and under what conditions, if any, tribal members will be able to operate motor vehicles on the reservation to maintain public safety.”
     The complaint details the citation and prosecution of four co-plaintiff tribal members, including Chelsea Bunim.
     Bunim, who lives part-time on the reservation with her mother, says she was stopped in February by sheriff’s Officer Ron Sindelar while driving her mother’s truck in Havasu Lake. She was cited for driving a truck with expired registration, her truck was seized and it was impounded 40 miles away in Needles.
     Bunim’s mother paid $521 to get the truck out of impound, and Bunim filed a motion to dismiss the citation, which is pending in Superior Court.
     “The creation of the reservation by Congress and the establishment of the boundaries of the reservation preempt the authority of the State of California to enforce any of its laws against any members of the tribe, while within the boundaries of the reservation, absent a federal statute expressly granting the state such authority,” the complaint states.
     Plaintiff Tommie Ochoa, who lives on the reservation, was cited on reservation land for driving with an expired registration and failure to provide evidence of financial responsibility. The vehicle he was driving belonged to another tribal member, and also was seized and impounded in Needles.
     Ochoa was found guilty of the violations, which he seeks to have set aside.
     The tribe’s attorney, Lester Marston, called defendants District Attorney Michael Ramos and Deputy County Counsel Miles Kowalski to see if San Bernardino County officials plan to continue to issue and prosecute vehicle violations against tribal members, the complaint states.
     Ramos never returned Marston’s call, but Kowalski did, advising him “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 complaint.
     San Bernardino’s County Counsel and District Attorney could not be reached for comment. The sheriff’s department said it was not aware of the lawsuit.
     The tribe claims the defendants interfere with its ability to “enact its own laws regulating the operation of motor vehicles on its reservation and to be governed by those laws.”
     It seeks declaratory judgment that enforcing the vehicle code against tribal members on the reservation is unconstitutional, an injunction, and more than $10,000 damages.
     Marston, of Rapport and Marston in Ukiah, could not be reached for comment.

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