OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Tulsa lacks the jurisdiction to prosecute a Native American man cited by police for speeding because the city is located within the boundaries of an Indian reservation, a federal appeals court ruled.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision on Wednesday, rejecting the city’s argument that the Curtis Act, an 1898 federal law passed before Oklahoma became a state, gave the city jurisdiction over municipal violations committed by Native Americans.
The court’s ruling was based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2020 decision that found that much of eastern Oklahoma, including Tulsa, remains an Indian reservation because it was never formally disestablished by Congress. That ruling has since been expanded to include several other reservations in eastern and southern Oklahoma that make up about 40% of the state.
Justin Hooper, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, was cited for speeding in 2018 by Tulsa police in a part of the city within the historic boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. He paid a $150 fine for the ticket, but filed a lawsuit after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma. He argued that the city did not have jurisdiction because his offense was committed by a Native American in Indian Country. A municipal court and a federal district court judge both sided with the city, but a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision.
The decision was immediately derided by Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation but has had an increasingly hostile relationship with Native American tribes in the state that stems from a feud over tribal casinos.
“Citizens of Tulsa, if your city government cannot enforce something as simple as a traffic violation, there will be no rule of law in eastern Oklahoma,” Stitt said in a statement. “This is just the beginning. It is plain and simple, there cannot be a different set of rules for people solely based on race.”
Stitt’s reaction to the ruling drew harsh condemnation from David Hill, the principal chief of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, who said he was unsure if the governor’s remarks were “born of intentional dishonesty or an inexcusable ignorance of the laws.”
“Race has nothing to do with this,” Hill said. “There is no law that Tulsa PD can’t enforce. That’s the part Stitt keeps ignoring as he perpetuates needless attacks on tribes.”
Ironically, Stitt’s own brother, Keith Stitt, also used his tribal citizenship to challenge Tulsa’s jurisdiction after police issued him a speeding ticket in 2021.
Experts on tribal law say there is an easy solution — for Tulsa to enter into prosecution agreements with various tribal nations like many cities and towns in eastern Oklahoma already have.
“It has always been the case that the City of Tulsa has the authority to write tickets and send those over to our various nations,” said Sara Hill, attorney general of the Cherokee Nation, which also has reservation land that encompasses parts of north Tulsa. “They simply haven’t been doing that in favor of this Curtis Act argument.”
Under the agreements with municipalities, the portion of the revenue from tickets that is typically remitted to the state of Oklahoma is instead sent to the tribal nation whose reservation the city or town is located in, Hill said. The rest of the money can be retained by the city or town.
Under such arrangements, city police officers can identify whether a defendant is a member of a Native American tribe and simply use an alternate ticket book, said John Dunn, an attorney who represented Hooper in the case. Any pleas, warrants or other judicial action that would require a judge’s signature would then be forwarded for consideration by a tribal judge.
Tulsa officials said in a statement that they were still reviewing the court’s decision and did not immediately respond to inquiries about whether they planned to enter into such agreements with the Muscogee (Creek) or Cherokee nations.