Tribes call for amendment or repeal of P.L. 280


LOS ANGELES, Ca – It was violence and the tragic deaths of members of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians this year that reignited a long running controversy over Public Law 280 and calls for its repeal or amendment.

A May 12 gunfight involving local police and members of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians that left two people dead was the most recent of six shooting incidents between tribal members and local law enforcement. Just days before, the son of a former tribal official was killed after firing at sheriff’s deputies with an assault rifle. Another son was killed in 2002 in a similar incident involving a shootout with local deputies.

Amidst the sorrow and confusion on the Soboba reservation, the May 12 incident also provoked anger and frustration after the county sheriff’s office sent in a SWAT team of more than 100 deputies, some in helicopters, who locked down the reservation, refusing to allow residents to return to their homes and confronting others at gunpoint.

Soboba Chief Robert Salgado said the sheriff’s department trampled on the tribe’s civil rights by violating the limits of their jurisdiction under P.L. 280 – a 1950s termination-era law imposed on the nations that gives states criminal jurisdiction on Indian land.

The incidents at Soboba led to a conversation and re-examination, first among southern California tribes, and then nationally, of the law and recommendations for a fix.

P.L. 280 is a maze of complexity that pits state jurisdiction against tribal sovereignty, 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 P.L. 280 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. The law 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 offences 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 P.L. 280. 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.

At around the same time as the incidents at Soboba last spring, the first and only comprehensive scholarly examination of P.L. 280 was published. The 568-page report called “Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice under Public Law 280” was researched and written by Carole E. Goldberg, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles Law School and faculty chair of the Native Nations Law and Policy Center, and Duane Champagne, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, a UCLA professor, an affiliate of the Native Nations Law and Policy Center, and senior editor of Indian Country Today.

The report recommends, 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, or withdrawal, from P.L. 280.

But at a forum at Soboba in August attended by more than 200 people, tribal leads called for repeal of P.L. 280, saying the law is a “throwback” to a different era and is now archaic in a new day for American Indians.

The National Congress of American Indians at its annual meeting in October passed a resolution called “Common Sense Reform for Public Law 280,” which essentially supports the recommendations in the Goldberg-Champagne report.