Court: Mille Lacs County improperly limited the Mille Lacs Band’s inherent law enforcement authority

Almost all people, regardless of race or income, agree that it’s important to honor your agreements.

Yet all too often, local, state and federal governments seem incapable of living that value when it comes to honoring treaties with Native Nations.

Native Nations received very little in treaty agreements. Native Nations have relatively small populations, making them easy targets for bullying. At every turn, when treaty disputes arise, Native Nations have sue to enforce what benefits they have.

The latest case comes from Mille Lacs County, where the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe won the latest legal dispute with the county over the Band’s reservation boundaries and the extent of Tribal police authority.

Perhaps county leaders are pressing the case to hold onto power through division, treating the Mille Lacs Band as an enemy.

In all likelihood, the county will continue challenging the Band’s treaty boundaries.

Everyone in Mille Lacs County has the opportunity to honor the treaty agreements that have not, and are not, being followed. They can encourage county leaders to drop any further litigation.

The case was heard in the U.S. District Court in Minnesota.

The decision provides the dispute’s history:

In 2008, the Band and County entered into a cooperative law enforcement agreement that “allowed Band law enforcement officers to exercise concurrent jurisdiction with the … County Sheriff’s Department to enforce Minnesota criminal law.”

Around 2013, the Band applied to the federal government for concurrent jurisdiction over federal crimes committed on Reservation lands.

Mille Lacs County officials opposed the application, arguing that the Mille Lacs Reservation, established by treaty. had been disestablished and the boundaries “no longer constitute the Band’s Indian country.”

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Solicitor issued an opinion saying yes, the Reservation boundaries set by treaty still exist.

The Mille Lacs County Board responding by revoking the 2008 cooperative law enforcement with the Band and trying to restrict Tribal police authority.

Mille Lacs County Attorney Joseph Walsh said the main reason to revoke the agreement was the County Board’s belief that the Band was using the federal law enforcement agreement to improve its position in the Reservation boundary dispute.

In July 2016, Walsh asked then-Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson to issue an opinion “regarding whether the Band’s police department remained a state law enforcement agency under Minnesota law.” She declined.

That same month, Walsh developed a protocol for moving forward, writing that the “nature and extent of [the Band’s] inherent tribal criminal authority is presently unknown,” he wrote. The protocol was needed “to ensure that the evidence being presented to me for potential prosecution would be admissible in court.” It would preclude legal challenges that might arise “’if a Band police officer made an illegal stop.’”

The Band went to federal court to get a decision saying that “tribal officers can investigate violations of federal, state and tribal law on the Mille Lacs reservation and prohibit the county from interfering,” an MPR story said. “Tribal leaders said the disagreement had resulted in an increase in crime and opioid abuse, with gangs and drug dealers viewing the reservation as a police-free zone.”

According the court decision, the county and the Band entered an interim law enforcement cooperation agreement in 2018 that grants the Band concurrent jurisdiction within the Band’s historic boundaries.

That agreement terminates within 90 days of the federal court ruling.

The ruling was issued Jan. 10.

In the ruling, the court found that the county: “improperly limited the Band’s inherent law enforcement authority to trust lands.”

Further, the county “unlawfully stated that tribal police officers could be subject to certain criminal penalties for performing law enforcement duties that courts have recognized as lawful exercises of inherent tribal law enforcement authority.”

The court ruled:

  • The Mille Lacs Band possesses inherent sovereign law enforcement authority within the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation, as defined by treaty.
  • Band police officers holding SLECs (federal Special Law Enforcement Commission) have federal authority to investigate violations of applicable federal law within the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation.

Attorneys for the county plan to appeal an earlier ruling in the case that said the band’s original Reservation, set by the Treaty of 1855, still existed,” MPR reported.

The story quotes Angelique EagleWoman, director of the Native American Law and Sovereignty Institute at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. She “said the case speaks to the need for more education on Native American law in Minnesota.”

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