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New report recommends rehabilitation of P.L. 280

LOS ANGELES - When attorney Carole Goldberg was asked by a law professor at Stanford Law School in 1970 to research Public Law 280 for a book he was writing, she produced a 100-page paper.

The subject intrigued her, she told Indian Country Today.

Now, 38 years and dozens of articles later, Goldberg is an acknowledged expert on P.L. 280 and, with her University of California - Los Angeles colleague Duane Champagne, recently completed a 568-page report called ;'Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice under Public Law 280.''

The report is the first and only comprehensive examination of the termination-era law. It details the shortcomings of the 55-year-old legislation, which transferred criminal jurisdiction on Indian reservations from the federal government to some states, and offers a dozen recommendations to improve the relationship between tribal governments and state law enforcement agencies to help deliver the kind of fair, efficient and culturally appropriate law enforcement and justice systems that tribal communities want.

The researchers hope their report will encourage Congress to review and revise P.L. 280.

''That's why we did our research report. I was shocked to see in the 55 years of P.L. 280 there had been no systematic evaluation of the effectiveness of this law, and there was a lot of anecdotal evidence that it had created problems of lawlessness,'' Goldberg said. ''It had not addressed those problems. It had exacerbated them.''

A full-time faculty member at the UCLA School of Law, she directs a joint degree program in law and American Indian studies and serves as faculty chairman for the Native Nations Law and Policy Center.

Champagne, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, is a UCLA professor, an affiliate of the Native Nations Law and Policy Center, and senior editor of ICT.

P.L. 280 is a maze of complexity that pits state jurisdiction against tribal sovereignty and criminal laws against regulatory issues, and has caused discontent, confusion and, in some cases, tragedy in Indian country and among some state and local law enforcement and criminal justice officials.

When the law was passed in 1953, it was an expression of the federal government's intention to terminate its relationship with Indian tribes and force their members into mainstream society by subjecting them to state law. It gave criminal justice jurisdiction to six states without tribal consent. The empowered states got to enforce their statewide criminal laws against Indians and non-Indians who committed offenses in Indian country on reservations.

Between 1953 and 1968, when the Indian Civil Rights Act passed, states could opt in to P.L. 280 without tribes' consent. After 1968, states needed a positive vote from tribes in order to adopt the law. But to this day, states can opt out - or retrocede - from P.L. 280, handing criminal jurisdiction on tribal lands back to the federal government, while tribes have no such option.

Over the years, P.L. 280 has generated huge conflicts on borderline issues between criminal laws and regulatory laws conflicts, Goldberg said. For example, are speeding laws driving regulations or criminal prohibitions against driving too fast? The answer would determine whether a tribe or state has jurisdiction over such a traffic violation.

But the greatest conflicts - and litigation - have been over the scope of state authority on sovereign tribal land.

''P.L. 280 never said the tribes were deprived of their authority. It's just that the Department of the Interior stopped handing out funding to tribes for their own police departments and court systems if they were in P.L. 280 jurisdiction, but they didn't give the state any money to fund their new responsibilities,'' Goldberg said.

The states wanted the control, but they weren't thrilled with the lack of money, she noted, so they responded by putting a very low priority on providing law enforcement and criminal justice services to tribes.

''Certainly we saw a lot of complaints about inadequate service, inadequate patrolling, slow responses to calls for service, cultural insensitivity - a whole host of difficulties that add up to a lack of trust on the part of reservation communities for state and local law enforcement; and that kind of trust is essential if you're going to be able to do efficient law enforcement and prosecution of criminal activity. You need people to be willing to report crimes and willing to testify as witnesses.''

The conflicts were illustrated at the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians' reservation in early May, when local sheriff's deputies killed three tribal members in shootouts less than a week apart. Tribal leaders complained that the state police overstepped their authority by locking down the entire reservation and preventing tribal members from moving about freely, by confronting some members at gunpoint, and expanding their authority beyond the crime scene.

Under P.L. 280, the police properly came on to the reservation in response to a 911 call for help, Goldberg said.

''But let me be clear about something. If the police are focusing on people who have not done anything wrong and are expanding the crime scene to include the entire reservation, that's as much a civil rights issues as a P.L. 280 issue because, believe me, that would be a problem whether it happened in L.A. or at Soboba.''

Among the recommendations to create fair and efficient law enforcement and justice systems in Indian country, the report suggests, among other things, training police and court personnel in P.L. 280 and tribal cultures, enhanced communication between state law enforcement agencies and tribal communities, mechanisms for police and justice systems' accountability, and legislation to allow tribes to initiate retrocession from P.L. 280. The full report is available at