Ore. House gives full authority to tribal police

The Oregon House voted Wednesday to give tribal police the same off-reservation authority as non-tribal officers, despite objections from county sheriffs who said the measure would open the door to lawsuits and give tribal officers unprecedented authority.

Representatives approved the measure on a 33-25 vote after GOP representatives also argued the bill doesn't have enough oversight to ensure the tribes comply with state law. The measure now goes back to the Senate, which has already approved the bill but is scheduled to decide Wednesday evening whether to accept changes made in the House. John Kitzhaber has said he supports the bill.

It would give tribal officers limited authority off reservations for two years, including the power to continue pursuing suspects who leave tribal land and to take action when a crime is committed in front of them.

Beginning in 2013, the measure then expands the authority of tribal officers, giving them full police authority through 2015. Republicans Andy Olson of Albany, Greg Smith of Heppner and Matt Wingard of Wilsonville joined all 30 Democrats in approving the measure.

The Oregon Supreme Court ruled this year that tribal officers should be counted as police officers in Oregon. The decision stemmed from a 2005 police chase that began on the Warm Springs Reservation and ended in Jefferson County. A Warm Springs officer who wasn't certified by the state law enforcement academy or deputized by the county sheriff made the stop.

The suspect appealed his conviction, arguing that the tribal officer didn't have the authority to make the stop. The state Court of Appeals agreed with the suspect, but the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the tribal officer did have authority.

House co-speaker Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, said the Supreme Court ruling is a good start, but the bill is necessary for tribal officers who encounter other kinds of crimes.

"If they stopped an assault, they would have to go back to Supreme Court to see if they could make that arrest," Roblan said.

Under the measure, tribal police officers would be granted limited police authority if they obtain certification from the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training and the tribe agrees to certain rules of insurance, tort liability and evidence.

Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, noted language in the bill that said the tribe's rules of preservation of evidence and public records, among other issues, be "substantially similar" to Oregon law.

"If I were still a criminal defense lawyer, I would scream with joy at that (phrase)," Bentz said. "This bill will result in litigation after litigation after litigation."

The Oregon State Sheriffs' Association was the most vocal opponent of the measure. It said the measure would give tribal officers authority off the reservation but would continue to restrict authority of non-tribal officers on reservations.