Law & Principles

Court rules Indians exempt from traffic laws

June 28, 2023

Ray Carter

If any individual member of an American Indian tribe wants to ignore the speed limit in Tulsa—say, by driving 100 miles-per-hour through a school zone—that individual can do so without fear of facing a ticket or charges by city police under a new ruling issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

The case centers on Justin Hooper, who was issued a $150 traffic citation by the City of Tulsa on Aug. 13, 2018. Despite initially paying the fine, Hooper later claimed he was exempt from city enforcement of its traffic laws because he is a member of the Choctaw Nation and Tulsa lies within the historic reservation boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. A 2020 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, McGirt v. Oklahoma, held that the Muscogee reservation was never formally disestablished.

Tulsa argued it still had jurisdiction over Indian inhabitants under the federal Curtis Act of 1898, which regarded the authority of certain towns in what was then known as Indian Territory. Section 14 of the act states that “all inhabitants of such cities and towns, without regard to race, shall be subject to all laws and ordinances of such city or town governments, and shall have equal rights, privileges, and protections therein.”

A municipal court and district court both agreed with Tulsa in prior rulings.

But the 10th Circuit disagreed. In the court’s ruling in Justin Hooper v. City of Tulsa, the 10th Circuit held that because the City of Tulsa adopted a new charter after statehood, the Curtis Act no longer applied to the city’s powers. The court opinion stated that “even if the Curtis Act was never repealed, it is no longer applicable to Tulsa.”

The decision will have a wide-ranging impact across eastern Oklahoma. Because of the McGirt decision, up to 42% of the state now lies within the historic boundaries of reservations that have been held to have never been formally disestablished.

Any individual within those areas who has a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) card proving he or she is descended from a Native American will now be exempt from local enforcement of municipal ordinances throughout that territory and local police cannot issue them fines or arrest them for violations.

In a brief filed in the Hooper case, Tulsa officials warned that the practical effect of a ruling in Hooper’s favor would be to create “a system where municipal laws would only apply to some inhabitants, but not others, depending on a complex algorithm with variables based on tribal membership of a defendant as well as discrete geographies within the City limits. Such a system is clearly more ‘unworkable’ and ‘counterintuitive’ than a clear system where all inhabitants of the City are treated equally for municipal violations.”

But the 10th Circuit opinion said its ruling could not take such practical factors into account “even if Tulsa proves correct that reversing the district court’s decision will lead to disruption.”

Hooper received support in his legal fight from several tribal governments.

A brief filed by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation said that absent congressional authorization, “neither states nor their political subdivisions have jurisdiction over crimes involving Indian defendants committed within the boundaries of an Indian reservation.”

A brief filed by the Cherokee Nation, Chickasaw Nation, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, Quapaw Nation, and Seminole Nation declared that allowing Tulsa to issue speeding tickets to American Indian drivers “threatens to establish a new presumption in eastern Oklahoma—that municipalities have jurisdiction over Indians within their boundaries.”

A spokesperson for Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum said the city’s legal representatives were “reviewing the opinion and will be evaluating next steps,” but would have no further comment at this time.

Gov. Kevin Stitt said the decision is a major blow to public safety.

“I am extremely disappointed and disheartened by the decision made by the Tenth Circuit to undermine the City of Tulsa and the impact it would have on their ability to enforce laws within their municipality,” Stitt said. “However, I am not surprised as this is exactly what I have been warning Oklahomans about for the past three years. Citizens of Tulsa, if your city government cannot enforce something as simple as a traffic violation, there will be no rule of law in eastern Oklahoma. This is just the beginning. It is plain and simple, there cannot be a different set of rules for people solely based on race. I am hopeful that the United States Supreme Court will rectify this injustice, and the City of Tulsa can rest assured my office will continue to support them as we fight for equality for all Oklahomans, regardless of race or heritage.”