Dispute over criminal jurisdiction flares in Oklahoma between tribal police, jailers

Dec 21, 2023, 3:34 PM

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A dispute erupted this week between police officers from the Muscogee Nation and jailers in a small eastern Oklahoma county that led to one jailer facing a battery charge in tribal court.

The confrontation underscores the tension between tribal authorities and some state and county officials over the limits of tribal sovereignty.

Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt has been a frequent critic of expanded tribal sovereignty and of the landmark 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision that determined state prosecutors lack criminal jurisdiction over certain crimes committed in Indian Country.

The latest altercation began Monday when tribal police attempted to deliver a man arrested for suspected fentanyl possession to the Okmulgee County jail. Jailers refused to accept the prisoner, and a scuffle broke out between a jailer and a tribal officer. The jailer was charged Wednesday in tribal court with battery, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Okmulgee County jail officials did not cooperate with three Muscogee Nation police officers who attempted to serve the arrest warrant, and the jailer has not been taken into custody, Muscogee Nation Attorney General Geri Wisner said Thursday.

“We are having ongoing conversations with Attorney General (Gentner) Drummond and U.S. Attorney Chris Wilson and will be determining the best next steps,” Wisner said.

Messages left Thursday with jail officials and Okmulgee County Sheriff Eddy Rice seeking comment about the incident were not returned.

Wisner blamed Okmulgee County officials for not working cooperatively with the tribe on law enforcement issues.

“We understand that the Okmulgee County officials dislike federal laws that grant tribal law enforcement jurisdiction,” she said. “But those political opinions do not give Okmulgee County the right to disregard and violate laws.

“It certainly does not give them license to assault another police officer.”

Stitt said the altercation was a direct result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on criminal jurisdiction and that he would continue to call on Congress and the courts to come up with solutions.

“Without jurisdictional clarity, we are left with a patchwork system and heightened tensions,” the governor said in a statement. “I am glad cooler heads prevailed and prevented the situation from escalating to a dangerous level, but this demonstrates the need for collective action.”

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Dispute over criminal jurisdiction flares in Oklahoma between tribal police, jailers