Lockyer: Tribal Joyriding Isn’t State’s Problem

Native Americans out for a joy ride without a driver’s license or proper registration have nothing to fear — as long as they stay on the roads of Indian reservations.

On Thursday, the state attorney general’s office declared that laws requiring licenses and registration are civil regulatory rules — not criminal violations — and cannot be enforced on tribal lands.

“Driving without a valid license or a current vehicle registration,” Sacramento-based Deputy AG Daniel Stone wrote, “does not, by itself, significantly threaten physical harm to persons or property, or invade the rights of others — in contrast to such behaviors as driving under the influence or reckless driving, which are prohibited by criminal laws.”

The AG’s opinion was requested by Allan McClain, sheriff of Kings County, a Central Valley county in which census figures indicate Native Americans make up only about 1.7 percent of the 143,000 residents. Federal information shows only a presence by the Santa Rosa tribe.

Opinions by the AG’s office are only advisory, but carry great weight with the courts.

While Congress has given some states, including California, broad jurisdiction over criminal offenses committed by or against Native Americans on Indian land, the U.S. Supreme Court has limited civil jurisdiction.

“If the state law generally permits the conduct at issue, subject to regulation, it must be classified as civil/regulatory, and [congressional authorization] does not authorize its enforcement on an Indian reservation,” the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1987’s California v. Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, 480 U.S. 202.

In his eight-page opinion (.pdf), Stone noted that state Vehicle Code 4000, which requires motor vehicle registration, is an infraction punishable by a fine of not more than $250, while Vehicle Code 12500, which requires a valid driver’s license, is a misdemeanor that can be treated as an infraction.

“We find,” he wrote, “that the registration requirements of 4000 and the prohibition of 12500 are properly characterized as ‘civil/regulatory’ laws.”

In a footnote, Stone stated that unlicensed and unregistered Indians driving recklessly or while intoxicated could still be charged with criminal offenses.

— Mike McKee

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