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Wednesday, February 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM



Non-Indians protest stops by tribal police

Times Snohomish County Bureau

Emboldened by an informal state attorney general's opinion on the limits of tribal police authority, some non-Indian residents of the Tulalip Reservation say they will challenge Tulalip officers who stop them for traffic violations.

"It's intimidation. It's harassment," said Mike Whitehead, who got a speeding ticket in August on the reservation.

He said that if he is stopped again, he'll call the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office or the State Patrol and ask one of those agencies to handle the matter, not officers from the Tulalip Tribes.

State Sen. Val Stevens, R-Arlington, said she supports the protest. She said non-Indians stopped by tribal police should hold up a card that reads: "You don't have authority over me. I'm calling a law-enforcement officer from my own government."

"The card wasn't my idea," Stevens said last week. "I just told them [non-Indian residents] that it needs to be in large enough print so an officer standing in the rain can read it."

Stevens emphasized that motorists should stop if police lights are flashing in their rearview mirrors, but she said non-Indians don't have to roll down their windows if they are stopped by Tulalip officers.

At the request of Stevens and two other state legislators, a deputy attorney general last month issued an informal opinion that concluded tribal police officers "generally lack authority to issue citations to non-Indians for traffic activity on public roadways and highways" on reservations.

The opinion doesn't have the force of a judge's ruling but does offer the views of the state's lawyers.

The conflict over tribal police power dates at least to last summer, when a number of county residents complained about Tulalip officers stopping motorists on Interstate 5 near Marysville as part of a State Patrol effort to inform motorists of a lowered speed limit in the area.

Around the same time, a number of non-Indian residents of the Tulalip Reservation contacted Sheriff Rick Bart over the legality of traffic stops by tribal police on the reservation.

The residents' protests followed moves by the tribes to assert their authority over a range of issues on the reservation, including ending leases held by non-Indian homeowners and asserting regulatory authority over tidelands.

The issue of police authority appeared to have been resolved in favor of the Tulalips in late August, when Mark Roe, then the chief criminal deputy in the Snohomish County prosecutor's office, said tribal officers have authority to stop non-Indians for traffic violations.

County Prosecuting Attorney Janice Ellis said the issue of tribal-police authority should be decided by the courts or the Legislature, not by the side of the road.

Bart weighed in last summer, warning residents that "a uniform is a uniform" and that they should stop for tribal police.

But Bart, after reading the recent comments from the Attorney General's Office, said non-Indians have legitimate questions about the authority of some tribal police to cite them for violations.

One issue is that only Tulalip Police Chief Jay Goss is cross-commissioned as a deputy sheriff, Bart said. Under current practice, the 20 patrol officers on the Tulalip force write tickets, which are then signed by Goss and forwarded to the appropriate court. Traffic citations to tribal members are handled in tribal court. Those involving non-Indians are referred to county District Court.

"I've commissioned Jay Goss. I haven't commissioned the rest of his officers," Bart said.

But Goss said his officers may legally stop anyone who commits a crime or traffic violation on the reservation in their presence. He cited a 1993 state Supreme Court case, State v. Schmuck, which held that a tribal officer has "inherent authority" to stop drivers on public roads within a reservation.

To be forced to release non-Indians, the court wrote, "would be to subvert a substantial function of Indian police authorities and produce a ludicrous state of affairs which would permit non-Indians to act unlawfully, with impunity, on Indian lands."

Goss said all of his officers have received training from the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and that many have attended the state police academy.

"We follow the law. We're a professional police department," Goss said. "We're trained to the same standards" as other police in the state.

Last week, tribal police detained a suspected non-Indian drug dealer who was driving recklessly. Goss said officers confiscated two guns, cocaine, methamphetamine, scales, brass knuckles and a roll of $100 bills. The previous week, officers stopped a felon wanted for an alleged parole violation.

"Do we let these guys drive off because they're not Indian, or do we keep the community safe?" Goss asked.

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company




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