Thursday, June 19, 2008

Public Law 280 on the Quinalt Reservation

A recent case from the Court of Appeals, Div. 2, State of Washington v. William Pink, Docket # 36485-9, reaffirms the scope of tribal sovereignty over criminal activity by tribal members on tribal land.


In this particular case, the state of Washington asserted criminal jurisdiction over an enrolled tribal member of the Quinault Reservation for possession of an illegal firearm on a state highway within the exterior boundaries of the Quinalt Reservation. According to the state, the fact that the crime occurred on the state highway gave the state jurisdiction to prosecute it.
The court of appeals disagreed, reasoning that the tribe had subject matter jurisdiction over the crime because it had jurisdiction over the land on which the crime occurred, per the Treaty of Olympia, which created the Reservation in 1859. The fact that the Tribe granted the state an easement for the highway did not vitiate this jurisdiction.

This decision contains a primer on state jurisdiction over Indians and Indian Reservations in Washington. This primer is worth summarizing here.

PL 280

In 1953, the US Congress passed legislation, Public Law 280, authorizing any state to assert concurrent jurisdiction over any Reservation within the territorial jurisdiction of the state, with or without tribal consent. The Washington State Legislature then elected to assert this jurisdiction but only over those Reservations that requested it.

Ten years later, in 1963, however, the Legislature elected to assert jurisidiction on the Reservation, with or without tribal consent, in eight different subject areas: 1. compulsory school attendance, 2. public assistance, 3. domestic relations, 4. mental illness, 5. juvenile delinquency, 6. adoption, 7. dependencies, 8. operation of motor vehicles on public streets.

This rather complicated set of laws was applied to the Quinalt Reservation as follows: in 1957, the Quinalt Tribe granted the State of Washington a right-of-way-easement over the Reservation so the State could build the highway.

In 1958, the Quinalt Tribe requested that the governor assert criminal and civil jurisdiction over the Reservation. A month later, in the same year, the governor obliged.

However, in 1965, the Quinalt Tribe petitioned the US Secretary of the Interior for retrocession of state jurisdiction. The Secretary granted the request.

Therefore, from 1965 through the present, the state of Washington lacks original criminal or civil jurisdiction over a tribal member for any matter arising on the Reservation. However, it does have concurrent jurisdiction over a tribal member for a matter arising on the reservation regarding one of the eight areas mentioned previously.

If this sounds complicated, it is because it is. The discussion above pertains only to tribal members and only to land within the exterior boundaries of the Reservation held in trust by the United States for the benefit of the Tribe or named tribal members.


This decision contains a good summary of how p.l. 280 applies to Indian Reservations in Washington State. It should be useful to anyone who advocates for tribal sovereignty and a cautionary tale for non-Indians who wish to do business with an Indian Tribe. If a non-tribal member wishes to do business in Indian country, that person must carefully consider not only what might go wrong, but also what remedies and what courts may be available for redress of grievances.

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