Supreme Court Rules on Tribal Police and Immigrants’ Testimony

In unanimous decisions, the justices refused to suppress evidence found by a tribal officer and rejected a presumption in favor of immigrants’ credibility.

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WASHINGTON — In a pair of unanimous decisions, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that tribal police officers may sometimes detain and search non-Native Americans on federal highways and that there is no presumption that testimony from immigrants fighting deportation is credible.

The case on tribal officers, United States v. Cooley, No. 19-1414, arose from an encounter in 2016 on a federal highway in the Crow Reservation in Montana. Officer James Saylor of the Crow Police Department stopped to assist a truck parked on the side of the road and found that the driver, Joshua Cooley, had what he said were watery and bloodshot eyes.

Noticing two semiautomatic rifles on the front seat, Officer Saylor detained Mr. Cooley and later also found methamphetamine in the truck.

Charged with federal drug and gun offenses, Mr. Cooley moved to suppress the evidence against him, arguing that tribal police officers lacked the authority to investigate violations of state or federal law by non-Native Americans on public highways in Indian reservations.

The lower courts agreed, suppressing the evidence against Mr. Cooley.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer, writing for the court, acknowledged that the Supreme Court’s precedents generally barred tribes from regulating the activities of those outside them. But he said there was an important exception. Tribes may act, he wrote, quoting a 1981 decision, when a non-Native American’s “conduct threatens or has some direct effect on the political integrity, the economic security or the health or welfare of the tribe.”

That exception, Justice Breyer wrote, “fits the present case, almost like a glove.”

“To deny a tribal police officer authority to search and detain for a reasonable time any person he or she believes may commit or has committed a crime would make it difficult for tribes to protect themselves against ongoing threats,” he wrote. “Such threats may be posed by, for instance, non-Indian drunk drivers, transporters of contraband or other criminal offenders operating on roads within the boundaries of a tribal reservation.”

It was significant, too, Justice Breyer wrote, that the charges Mr. Cooley ultimately faced were not tribal ones but under “state and federal laws that apply whether an individual is outside a reservation or on a state or federal highway within it.”

In the immigration case, Garland v. Dai, No. 19-1155, the court rejected rulings from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, that assumed immigrants’ testimony was credible unless immigration judges specifically said otherwise.

“The Ninth Circuit has long applied a special rule in immigration disputes,” Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote for the court, one that “appears to be an outlier.” Unless immigration judges make “an explicit adverse credibility determination,” the appeals court said, “a reviewing court must treat a petitioning alien’s testimony as credible and true.”

The decision involved two cases in which immigrants had avoided deportation thanks to that presumption. In one, an immigration judge ruled that Cesar Alcaraz-Enriquez must be returned to Mexico because a federal law barred leniency for people convicted of serious crimes.

Mr. Alcaraz-Enriquez had been convicted of domestic abuse, and his probation report described in detail a series of violent assaults. In testimony before the judge, Mr. Alcaraz-Enriquez gave a more benign account, admitting that he had hit a girlfriend but saying he had done so to protect his daughter.

Because the judge made no explicit credibility determination, the Ninth Circuit ruled for Mr. Alcaraz-Enriquez, saying his version of events must be accepted.

The second case involved Ming Dai, a Chinese citizen who overstayed a tourist visa and sought asylum, giving conflicting testimony about the persecution he would face were he returned to China. The immigration judge denied relief after weighing the testimony. The Ninth Circuit, relying on “the absence of an explicit adverse credibility finding,” ruled that Mr. Dai was eligible for asylum.

Justice Gorsuch wrote that “the Ninth Circuit’s rule has no proper place in a reviewing court’s analysis” under the Immigration and Nationality Act, or I.N.A.

“When it comes to questions of fact — such as the circumstances surrounding Mr. Alcaraz-Enriquez’s prior conviction or Mr. Dai’s alleged persecution — the I.N.A. provides,” Justice Gorsuch wrote, quoting from the statute, “that a reviewing court must accept ‘administrative findings’ as ‘conclusive unless any reasonable adjudicator would be compelled to conclude to the contrary.'”

“Nothing in the I.N.A.,” he wrote, “contemplates anything like the embellishment the Ninth Circuit has adopted.”

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