New Mexico court allows police to enter tribal lands to investigate certain crimes by Indians

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico law enforcement officers can enter tribal lands to investigate crimes committed off-reservation by American Indians, the state's highest court has ruled.

The unanimous decision by the state Supreme Court on Tuesday carved out an exception to long-standing legal doctrine in New Mexico that state and local law enforcement have no authority over tribal members on Indian lands.

The court affirmed the drunken driving conviction of David Harrison, a member of the Navajo Nation, and allowed the use of DWI evidence gathered on the reservation by a non-tribal law enforcement officer.

The Navajo Nation and Santa Ana Pueblo had submitted written arguments in the case, saying that tribal sovereignty would be damaged if the DWI conviction was affirmed. The Navajo Nation, which covers about 25,000 square miles in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, is the largest Indian reservation in the United States.

Navajo justice department attorneys did not return telephone calls Wednesday seeking comment. Richard Hughes, a Santa Fe lawyer representing Santa Ana, said the ruling was a "step backward" in New Mexico law on the limits of state authority on Indian lands.

Hughes said the Supreme Court appeared to back away from it's previous rulings that "state officers could not engage in hot pursuit of tribal members into Indian country."

Harrison was stopped in 2005 about one-third of a mile inside the boundary of the Navajo reservation in northwestern New Mexico by a San Juan County deputy sheriff, who had seen him speeding outside the reservation. The deputy had Harrison perform field sobriety tests and a breath-alcohol test.

The deputy did not arrest Harrison at the time — knowing that he had no power to do so on tribal lands — but later obtained an arrest warrant that was handled according to Navajo requirements. The deputy had tried to arrange for Navajo police to assist at the scene of the stop but none were available. The deputy allowed Harrison to walk to a nearby relative's house rather than continue to drive.

Harrison appealed his conviction, contending that the deputy didn't have the power to detain him on tribal lands and collect the DWI evidence used against him.

The Supreme Court rejected arguments that stopping Harrison and subjecting him to the sobriety tests turned the detention into a "de facto arrest." The court also said the DWI tests didn't infringe on tribal sovereignty because the Navajos had no rules or procedures dealing with the administration of field sobriety tests by a non-tribal officer.

The justices pointed to a 2001 U.S. Supreme Court ruling as the legal foundation for allowing New Mexico law enforcement to go onto tribal lands to investigative off-reservation crimes by an Indian.

The New Mexico court said the legal dispute could have been avoided had the Navajos and San Juan County had a "cross-commission agreement" to empower state officers to act as a tribal officer in some instances.

Samson Cowboy, executive director of the Navajo Nation Division of Public Safety, said he had not seen the New Mexico court ruling but said the sheriff's deputy had used "good judgment" by not arresting Harrison on tribal land yet preventing him from driving after the DWI tests showed he was intoxicated.

"With my law enforcement experience, I wouldn't have a problem with that. We need to get these people off the road," Cowboy said in a telephone interview.