Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Monday, January 7, 2002


Page 1


State Courts Can’t Authorize Search of Tribal Casino—Court


By a MetNews Staff Writer


Sovereign immunity precludes state courts from issuing warrants to search Indian casinos, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.

The court reinstated a civil rights suit by the Bishop Paiute tribe against the sheriff and district attorney of Inyo County. The suit grows out of March 2000 raid in which officials seized payroll records of the tribe’s Paiute Palace casino.

An Inyo Superior Court judge issued the warrant, specifically authorizing a search for records that would show whether three named suspects had collected welfare benefits while working for the casino.

The tribe claimed that the search violated its sovereignty, and that it in any event exceeded the scope of the warrant because the seized records included those of 78 other employees and the tribe was given no opportunity to redact the documents to protect their identities.

 Senior U.S. District Judge Robert E. Coyle of the Eastern District of California dismissed the suit, holding that the search warrant was validly issued under Public Law 280. The statute permits authorities in certain states, including California, to enforce criminal laws on Indian lands with regard to offenses “by or against Indians.”

Coyle also ruled that the sheriff and district attorney had good-faith immunity and that they had sovereign immunity because there were acting as state, rather than county, officers.

But Judge Harry Pregerson, writing for the Ninth Circuit, said that Public Law 280 did not abrogate the tribe’s sovereign immunity.

The statute grants the named states jurisdiction over Indian lands, Pregerson explained, but not over the tribes. The district judge’s ruling, Pregerson said, is inconsistent with the general rule that ambiguities in laws relating to state-tribal relations are to be construed in favor of the tribes.

Execution of a warrant against tribal premises, Pregerson went on to say, offends tribal sovereignty. 

“As one of the only means by which the Tribe can generate income and be self-sufficient, management of the Casino is uniquely part of the Tribe’s government and infrastructure,” the judge wrote. Safeguarding the privacy of employees, by limiting the circumstances under which employment records may be disclosed, is an activity that all public entities engage in, he added.

The warrant not only infringed upon the tribe’s right to protect the privacy of its employees, the judge said, but also upon “the more fundamental right of the Tribe not to have its policies undermined by the states and their political subdivisions.”

Pregerson rejected the argument that state authorities would be unable to enforce the laws if they were barred from executing warrants to search tribal premises. In this case, the judge said, the defendants had several alternatives.

They could have asked the suspects to consent to the release of the records; they could have provided the tribe with copies of the welfare benefit applications, which include consent for the release of employment records; or they could have executed warrants against individual tribal members under Public Law 280, Pregerson said.

Pregerson went on to conclude that the sheriff and district attorney lacked sovereign immunity because they were acting on behalf of the county, rather than the state, in executing the search warrant. Sheriffs and district attorneys are designated as county officers, and administration of welfare as a county responsibility, by California statutes, the jurist noted.

Nor can the defendants claim qualified or good-faith immunity under the facts alleged, Pregerson said. He cited an earlier Ninth Circuit ruling that county authorities could not execute a subpoena against a tribe, as well as a published 1992 Southern District of California ruling that a county sheriff could not execute a search warrant on tribal lands over which the sheriff had no jurisdiction.

The case is Bishop Paiute Tribe v. County of Inyo, 01-15007.


Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company