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Montana state court upholds chase onto Blackfeet land

BOZEMAN, Mont. ? The hand of the Hicks ruling has fallen on Montana, in a state Supreme Court ruling upholding off-reservation law authority activity on Indian country.

The high court of Montana reversed a lower court ruling that had excluded evidence gathered on the Blackfeet Reservation during a chase by city police. The state Supreme Court reversal is seen by some as whittling at tribal sovereign powers.

A lower court ruled that evidence gathered on the Blackfeet Reservation against Daniel Bird, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, was not admissible in court. The state Supreme Court overturned the ruling and allowed evidence gathered while Bird was on the reservation to be used in court.

The reservation boundary was not considered as a protector for Bird, who had committed a crime off the Blackfeet Reservation, but was chased onto the reservation. He was stopped by city police and then arrested by tribal police who turned Bird over to local authorities of Cut Bank, Mont.

The court in its 4-1 decision cited a 1997 court ruling that an officer has the authority to stop a motorist to determine if he has jurisdiction over the offender.

Bird was followed on May 25, 1999, by Cut Bank city police officer Joshua Olson who observed a pickup truck with three occupants traveling erratically through the city at a slow rate of speed. He assumed the driver might be intoxicated. When he attempted to stop the vehicle it increased its speed. He then pursued the vehicle toward the reservation boundaries. At that time Olson stated in his report the vehicle was speeding in an erratic manner.

The truck crashed through a fence and stopped in a field. The Blackfeet tribal police was called and they arrested Bird and a companion who were both members of the Blackfeet Tribe. Tribal officer Chris Cadotte transported Bird to the Glacier County jail.

Bird was the driver of the vehicle and charged with reckless driving. He asked for a dismissal and argued that the city had no jurisdiction on the reservation. He also asked the court to suppress all evidence collected while on the reservation. His motions were denied in city court, and he was convicted of the reckless driving offense.

On appeal to the district court, Bird was granted his motion to suppress all evidence that was gathered after his truck crossed onto the reservation. The court also concluded that the officers from Glacier County and the city of Cut Bank did not have jurisdiction.

The state Supreme Court concluded that the officers had jurisdiction and cited the hot pursuit statutes as precedent.

The city of Cut Bank conceded that Bird was not extradited from the reservation under the Blackfeet Tribal Code procedures, but it asserted that the failure to follow the extradition procedures should not result in the exclusion of evidence.

The Supreme Court disagreed with the conclusion that Bird was improperly extradited from the reservation in violation of the tribal code. It stated that a good faith effort was made to use proper procedures in removing Bird from the reservation.

Justice Terry N. Trieweiler dissented. He agreed with the lower court's decision to suppress evidence collected while on the reservation. He stated that the offense was committed within the city limits of Cut Bank and that the police officer had no jurisdiction beyond the city limits.

"The important point is that Bird was not charged with reckless driving based on conduct that occurred on the Blackfeet Reservation nor would any Cut Bank police officer have had authority to arrest him based on conduct that occurred on the Reservation. Therefore, Bird's conduct after he crossed onto the Reservation was irrelevant and evidence was properly excluded," Trieweiler wrote.

The federal case of Nevada vs. Hicks looms large in this case, although it was not cited by the judges. The Montana case brings the jurisdiction debate among states and tribes to a new level.

Hicks dealt with an investigation conducted on a reservation by off reservation law officers. The U.S. Supreme court ruled that evidence in that case was admissible.

The Montana Supreme Court case number is 00-246 ? 2001 MT 296.