Law & Principles, Good Government

Organized crime exploiting tribal car-tag loopholes

July 28, 2023

Ray Carter

Since the legalization of “medical” marijuana, Oklahoma has become a hub of criminal activity, much of it involving international cartels.

What many people don’t know is that those cartels are now aided in their activity by use of unregistered—and often illegal—car tags issued by tribal governments in Oklahoma.

“We are the hub of transnational organized crime in Oklahoma now,” said Tim Tipton, commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety. “Medical marijuana has turned our state into 100-percent the place that transnational organized crime—mainly drug dealers and human traffickers—operate in our state. And now the problem is they’re not dumb. They know, and I’m not going to get into active cases, but we know we have what I call transnational organized criminals utilizing unregistered tribal plates to move people and product around the country. Not just in Oklahoma, but even in other areas of the country.”

Tipton made those comments during a July 21 presentation to state lawmakers that focused on a range of problems facing law enforcement.

A major problem is that car tags issued by tribal governments are not typically registered with the state of Oklahoma.

That creates a raft of problems. Tipton told lawmakers it means that police who stop a vehicle for a speeding infraction have no way of knowing if the driver is in a stolen car or has outstanding criminal warrants or if the vehicle has been linked to other criminal activity, and said that puts officers in increased danger.

Only the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw have state compacts regarding tribal licenses. However, while the Choctaw and Chickasaw issue their licenses through state tag agencies, the Cherokee have their own, in-house tag division, and many tags issued by compacting tribes are not registered with the state.

There were 132,192 tribal tags issued to individuals in those three tribes in 2022.

There are about 30 other tribes that do not have state compacts that also issue tags. In theory, non-compacting tribes may issue tribal tags only to members of the tribe who live on tribal allotment land or live within the historic reservation area of the issuing tribe.

But Tipton said not all tribes abide by those restrictions and some tribes illegally issue tags to any member living anywhere in Oklahoma. The Muscogee (Creek) Nation is among the non-compacting tribes that have publicized their willingness to issue illegal tags statewide.

“We have transnational organized criminals utilizing unregistered tribal plates to move people and product around the country.” —Tim Tipton, commissioner of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety

DPS estimates there are as many as 570,146 vehicles on Oklahoma roads with car tags issued by non-compacting tribes. The state has no information on any of those tags or their drivers.

The lack of transparency involved with Indian tags has obvious appeal to individuals trying to reduce law enforcement’s ability to track them. And Oklahoma has become home to increasingly sophisticated and expansive cartel activity due to the legality of marijuana production.

In February, the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control revealed that more than 800 medical marijuana farms have been shut down in Oklahoma due to ties to organized crime. The agency also reported that sex trafficking, prostitution, and drug trafficking had been linked to illegal medical marijuana farms.

The criminal activity has also included murder.

On Nov. 20, 2022, four Chinese nationals were shot dead at a licensed marijuana farm near Lacey in Kingfisher County.

Tipton told lawmakers that criminals believe the use of tribal car tags gives them an advantage over law enforcement.

“I don’t know where this is going to go, but I just know that criminals look for ways to conceal and to escape and to continue their business,” Tipton said. “And they’re utilizing the flaws that I’ve identified to you to be able to do those types of activities.”