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Tribal leaders, experts respond to Oklahoma's new policy on ticketing tribal tags

Nabeel Syed
/
Unsplash

A traffic ticket has sent shockwaves throughout Indian Country.

Tribal citizens have routinely driven cars with their nation’s tags without penalty for years in Oklahoma. But, the Otoe-Missouria Tribe recently announced one of its citizens was given a $249 ticket for failure to pay state taxes on their motor vehicle.

“This change was made without notice or consultation with all Tribes that operate vehicle tag registration,” Otoe-Missouria Chairman John Shotton said in a written statement. “We are concerned about this change and are reviewing all legal options to address this issue. Once again, consultation and/or diplomacy with the tribal governments prior to this policy implementation would have been helpful to avoid this difficult situation”

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol has issued a memorandum on the two circumstances “in which an Indian living in Oklahoma may use a tribal tag in lieu of a state-issued tag.”

  • In pursuant to the United States Supreme Court's holding in Oklahoma Tax Comm'n v. Sac & Fox Nation, 508 U.S. I 14 (1993), Indians may use a tribal tag if they (I) have registered their vehicles through the tribe and (2) reside and principally garage their vehicle in the tribe's Indian country.
  • For tribes with a valid compact with the state, members of those tribes may lawfully use a tribal plate no matter where the person lives.

“Other than these two circumstances, all Oklahomans must register their vehicle with an Oklahoma tag and registration,” the memorandum said. “Oklahomans who fail to do so are subject to enforcement under the Oklahoma Vehicle License and Registration Act, which may include a misdemeanor citation and/or impoundment of the vehicle.”
Oklahoma's Attorney General Gentner Drummond's office is keeping an eye on the situation.

"The Office of Attorney General is reviewing the recent guidance issued to law enforcement and will take steps to ensure full compliance if necessary," a spokesman said in a written statement. "The AG does believe the compacting process is the ideal avenue to address these public safety concerns."

A clarification for motorists: you cannot be pulled over randomly for having a tribal tag that is not one of the three tribal nations that have compacts with the state: Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw. In other words, an officer can't just pull someone over for having a tribal tag. Officers must have to have a basis to initiate the stop, like speeding or reckless driving.

Also, if your driver's license address is within your reservation boundaries, you are fine.

But, that hasn't stopped tribal citizens from being afraid to go out on public roads. William Norman, an Oklahoma City attorney specializing in Indian Law, said his firm has been fielding calls from people concerned they wouldn't be able to go to their doctors' appointments.

"That's a real tragedy for them, particularly when you think, again, of the fact that these are Oklahomans whose ancestors were here before the state of Oklahoma," Norman said.

Defense attorney Robert Gifford also said he believes Native drivers could use a “public authority,” defense.

“A defendant may assert it based on the fact that he/she reasonably relied on the authority of a government official to engage him/her in [otherwise illegal] activity,” Gifford said.

Tribal leaders react

Tribal leaders in Oklahoma reacted with concern for their citizens and put out messages on social media.

Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill said in a statement, “we are in constant communication with our legal team for counsel and determining any action that may be necessary.”

In a statement to its citizens, The Osage Nation said, “this change was made without any consultation with the Osage Nation and without notice. The Osage Nation is working on multiple fronts to address the issue.”

Similar statements have been made by leaders of the Caddo Nation, Kaw Nation and Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

Cherokee Nation drivers are protected by their compact with the state. But Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., said on social media he stands ready if the tribal nation needs to step in.

“Governor Stitt’s lawless and fact free approach to tribal sovereignty is nothing new and his actions against our citizens will not be tolerated,” Hoskin said.

The move comes on the heels of a tribal-state interim compacting study where tribal nations asked the Governor to come to the table in a meaningful dialogue with them over a number of issues-most notably vehicle and tobacco compacts

Stitt may be wanting to press the issue and force tribes that do not have compacts on tags into a position where they need to.

But regardless, critics say, it creates problems for tribal citizens.

"It's no different than what we've seen," the OKC attorney Norman said about Stitt's administration failing to communicate on the issue.

He said Stitt has had a similar lack of communication about gaming compacts, his recent sports betting plan and changes to taxing tribal gaming issues.

“Just some conversation with the tribes, which is all they've been asking for for years now, would go a long way,” Norman said. “But he's got no interest in that, apparently.“

This report was produced by the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange, a collaboration of public media organizations. Help support collaborative journalism by donating at the link at the top of this webpage.

Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
Robby grew up in Ardmore, Oklahoma and Fayetteville, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Nebraska with a Journalism degree. Robby has reported for several newspapers, including The Roanoke Times in southwest Virginia. He reported for StateImpact Oklahoma from 2019 through 2022, focusing on education.
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