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United States v. Cooley examines tribal law enforcement

U.S. Supreme Court will hear Montana-centric case argued this week
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Posted at 7:59 PM, Mar 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-22 10:24:57-04

MISSOULA — The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a Montana-centric case being argued this week.

On Tuesday, the case United States v. Cooley examines jurisdiction and tribal law enforcement.

Missoula attorney Eric Henkel is representing Joshua Cooley.

Cooley is a Wyoming resident who was detained by a Crow Tribal highway safety agent in 2016.

The detainment resulted in Cooley’s indictment on meth distribution charges, but that’s being challenged with this Supreme Court appeal.

Most recently, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals suppressed evidence in the case, deciding that the tribal officer had exceeded his authority to investigate a person who does not have tribal status.

MTN News spoke with the Director of the Indian Law Clinic, Monte Mills, at the University of Montana’s Law School to get his take.

“Essentially what it would mean is that in an instance like Mr Cooley's case where there's somebody on the side of a road or, you know, when tribal police officers are just generally patrolling, if they come upon someone who they might suspect is doing something illegal, then they're basically presented with the option of asking whether the person is an Indian or a non Indian," Mills explained of the ramifications of the case.

"And if that person says I am non-Indian, then that's basically the end of their ability to do anything unless that person is clearly engaged in criminal activity at the time,” Mills said.

Mills tells MTN News the case could limit effective protection of public safety and law enforcement by tribal law enforcement officers in Indian country.