Law & Principles , Good Government
Ray Carter | July 26, 2023
Law enforcement: Unregistered tribal tags endanger police
Because most tribal license tags are not registered with the state, those tags endanger police officers during routine stops, according to one of the state’s top law enforcement officials.
In addition, tribal courts’ lack of transparency has made it possible for many repeat offenders, including drunk drivers, to retain their state driver’s licenses and remain on Oklahoma roads.
Many tribal tags are also illegal and may have cost the state more than $143.7 million, according to estimates from the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety (DPS).
“The unregistered tags, tribal tags, in Oklahoma are, in my opinion, at a critical level,” said Tim Tipton, commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety.
Tipton made those comments during a July 21 presentation to state lawmakers.
Only three tribes have compacts with the state of Oklahoma authorizing tribal car tags—the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw—and only the Choctaw and Chickasaw run that process through a local state tag office.
“If you’re not one of those three compacted tribes, it’s really unregulated,” Tipton said. “And really, it’s only regulated in two—that that information even gets into our system.”
There are 33 tribes in Oklahoma that offer tags to members. Many of those tags are unregistered with state government.
As a result, when state or local police pull over a car for a speeding infraction or other violation, the officer cannot find information on the driver from state databases. That can put those officers in danger, Tipton said.
“I don’t know if that car’s been chased and ran. I don’t know if that car’s stolen. I can’t get any data, any intel,” Tipton said.
He said that “inability to gather intel pre- and post-stop and what that does to every police officer in the state and their own physical safety is huge.”
In addition to the lack of reporting on tribal tags, such as basic information on the owner of the vehicle, a lack of transparency from tribal courts is also harming public safety, according to DPS.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which effectively held that historic Indian reservations covering most of eastern Oklahoma were never formally disestablished, cases involving American Indian drivers in those areas are now typically shifted to tribal courts, rather than state courts.
State officials are rarely informed of the outcome of those cases.
“Even more important than driving record, the wants and warrants through tribal courts we don’t know about,” Tipton said. “So, for any criminal history and running from warrants, we can’t even get that information out of that.”
Because many American Indian drivers stopped for drunk driving in McGirt areas now have their cases handled in tribal courts, and because tribal convictions are not typically shared with the state, individuals who might have had their state driver’s licenses revoked under Oklahoma law may now continue to possess their licenses and remain on the roads.
Tipton said that creates scenarios that put “every citizen in the state at greater jeopardy.”
“By statute, by legislation that was so important that y’all passed (it), all state and local courts shall—not may—shall report the DUI convictions to Service Oklahoma for that criminal-conviction action to be taken on that driver, and especially those habitual DUI drivers that this isn’t their first. This is their second or their third. I mean, we’re escalating to felony DUI,” Tipton said. “Tribal courts, there is no mandate. At current, only one tribe has reported in under criminal DUI enforcement to Service Oklahoma.
“So, in my opinion, that could potentially be an epidemic-size problem when we’re not getting these criminal convictions reported back through the court system to the State of Oklahoma to be able to take action on that license as well as what’s the outcome of the criminal trial,” Tipton continued. “It goes without saying the kind of jeopardy that this puts all of our citizens in whenever we’ve got drunk drivers who aren’t being held accountable and no action is being taken on it.”
Similarly, tribal courts do not report uninsured-driving convictions to the state. While non-Indian repeat offenders can have their car impounded under state law, Indian drivers may evade that sanction due to the lack of reporting by tribal courts.
“We know the number of tribes that aren’t responding, aren’t sending in information, and it’s a majority of them,” Tipton said.
DPS estimates that in McGirt-impacted counties, there has been a 14 percent decline in the issuance of citations. And that figure may be a lowball estimate since it is based only on Oklahoma Highway Patrol-issued tickets and does not account for other law enforcement entities.
“This is only OHP,” Tipton said. “There’s about 13,000 certified police officers in Oklahoma, right now. We’re only 752 of them. So it’s a very small percentage. But how many other law enforcement agencies are writing tickets that go through the tribal system, I don’t know.”
He also noted that the penalties facing drivers in tribal courts may be far less—or even nonexistent—compared to the penalties facing non-Indian drivers for the same offenses.
A non-Indian speeding more than 16 miles above the limit will face a fine of $279. But an Osage driver faces a fine of just $72 for the same offense, Tipton said.
Driving an overweight dump truck will result in a $249 fine for non-Indian drivers, but a Pawnee driver will face no sanction because there is no penalty for that offense in the tribe’s legal code.
A non-Indian driver convicted of DUI in state court will face a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison for a first offense with penalties increasing for subsequent offenses to the point a driver may be sentenced to 10 years in prison and a $5,000 fine upon a third conviction. But, Tipton noted, the maximum penalty imposed in Comanche tribal courts is around $900 for the third offense.
Traffic homicide by a non-Indian can result in a 20-year sentence in state court, but just 2.5 years for Indian drivers.
Tribal loopholes costing the state millions
DPS estimates there are as many as 570,146 vehicles on Oklahoma roads that have car tags issued by roughly 30 non-compacting tribes, costing the state of Oklahoma more than $143.7 million annually in registration fees, excise tax collections, and lost sales taxes.
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation alone, which claims a historic reservation lying across much of Tulsa, may be costing the state $16.4 million in annual revenue collections due to an estimated 50,032 tribal tags it issues. If the Muscogee were to compact with the state, the tribe would receive about $3.4 million of that total under typical compact terms with the remainder going to the state.
While noncompacting tribes are allowed to legally issue tribal tags to some members, the law allows them to do so only if the tribal member lives on tribal allotment land or lives within the historic reservation area of the issuing tribe, Tipton said.
But the Muscogee (Creek) Nation offers tribal tags to any member living anywhere in Oklahoma, meaning many tags it issues are illegal, and it is not the only tribe engaged in that illegal activity, according to DPS.
During a special session this week, the Senate voted to override Gov. Kevin Stitt’s veto of House Bill 1005X, a bill that authorized one-year state-tribal compacts regarding motor vehicle licensing and license tags. The Oklahoma House of Representatives had previously voted to override Stitt’s veto of that bill on June 12.
Lawmakers have referred to the bills as “extending” existing tribal-tag compacts, which are set to expire at the end of this year, but the practical effect is to approve new compacts with shorter terms without the involvement of the governor in the negotiation process.
Stitt has argued the compacts need to be updated to address a range of issues, but tribal governments have refused to agree to those changes.
Because the expiration of the existing compacts loomed, approval of HB 1005X effectively weakened the state’s hand in negotiations in the short term.
Although DPS officials alerted lawmakers to problems with the existing tribal-tag system on July 21, lawmakers made no attempt to address those issues or improve the compacts. Instead, HB 1005X locks in place the existing system, which may allow repeat drunk drivers to remain on the road for another year.
Tipton warned lawmakers the negative repercussions the McGirt decision has had on public safety are not declining.
“Now we’re three years into this,” Tipton said. “I don’t see the gaps being closed. I see the gaps worsening due to the extension of McGirt. We’re no longer McGirt narrowly identified (as) major crimes under the (federal) Major Crimes Act. McGirt has had an effect on roadside troopers and police officers and deputy sheriffs on the road.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.