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Judge rules St. Regis Tribal Police have no jurisdiction in “Bombay Triangle”

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HOGANSBURG — A Franklin County judge has dismissed felony driving while intoxicated charges against a Hogansburg woman because, he ruled, the police had no jurisdiction to arrest her.

County Judge Robert Main Jr., in an Oct. 15 ruling, said St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Police lack police powers outside of the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation and dismissed charges against Amanda Herne, 34, of Hogansburg, which included aggravated driving while intoxicated, driving while intoxicated and speed not reasonable and prudent. The first two counts are felonies, and the third is a traffic offense.

On Sept. 14, 2012, St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Police responded to a car crash on St. Regis Road in the town of Bombay in an area known as the Bombay Triangle, a piece of property adjacent to the reservation that has been part of a land dispute between the St. Regis Mohawks and the state.

Tribal leaders say the 3,000-acre property was sold to the state without congressional approval between 1816 and 1845 and was granted to them in a 2005 land claim settlement.

In Judge Main’s decision, he said the response to the accident scene by tribal police was appropriate as “an obvious effort to promote general public safety.”

“Given the boundaries of the St. Regis Reservation, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Police response to the accident scene in question was likely more immediate than the possible response of any other agency,” Judge Main wrote. “Nonetheless, whatever the response, it did not include the power to arrest. … Here the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Police arrested defendant without jurisdiction or authority such that the arrest is null and void.”

The tribal police force, formed in 1992, was granted peace officer status in a 2005 act of the state Legislature, though that power was limited to the reservation.

The department has a checkered history of having police powers, having been deputized by successive Franklin County sheriffs, only to have that status rescinded once and severely limited in the second instance.

Ms. Herne’s attorney, Vaughn N. Aldrich, argued that the law creating the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Police must be narrowly construed and strictly limits the police power of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Police.

“Put another way, the defense argued that, absent ‘hot pursuit,’ the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Police lack police powers outside of the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation rendering the instant arrest without authority and what should be deemed a nullity.”

Mr. Aldrich did not return calls for comment on the decision.

Franklin County District Attorney Derek P. Champagne said while there were a lot of ways to view the judge’s decision, he has no problems with it.

“They have been treating the Bombay Triangle as native land that they have jurisdiction over,” Mr. Champagne said.

He said any authority the tribal police would have in the Bombay Triangle would be similar to that of a citizen’s arrest.

“The problem is that they can’t do what a police officer would do, but possibly detain. They get really into some finite nuances,” Mr. Champagne said. “What do you do if someone takes a swing at you?”

The decision now leaves the state police and the county Sheriff’s Department responsible for any criminal activity that goes on outside of the reservation.

Mr. Champagne said the state police will not add patrols to that area and tribal police would have to call for backup in the case of criminal activity.

State police said they were unable to comment on their patrolling methods.

St. Regis Mohawk Tribe Communications Director Allyson Doctor said in a statement that the tribe was disappointed that Judge Main, in his “erroneous decision,” did not consider the ongoing land claim litigation, as well as the position of the federal government in a similar challenge to the Tribal Police’s jurisdiction in the Bombay Triangle.

“The Hogansburg area is part of land set aside as Mohawk Reservation by federal treaty and has never been diminished by the United States Congress; it is therefore, under current federal law, part of the Saint Regis Mohawk Reservation,” Mrs. Doctor said in the news release.

In 2005, when passing the law allowing tribal police certification as peace officers, the state Legislature was aware of the land claim and chose not to limit the jurisdiction to that area recognized by the state, but to the entire reservation, Mrs. Doctor wrote.

“Between 2005 when the legislation was passed, and until challenged by the attorney for an individual stopped in Hogansburg with a large quantity of marijuana by tribal police, everyone involved, including the Franklin County district attorney, local courts, the tribal police and the state police, all were in agreement that the term ‘reservation’ in the state law, included the lands in Hogansburg,” Mrs. Doctor said.

The tribal police will continue to patrol and respond to requests for assistance in the Bombay Triangle while maintaining a cooperative working relationship with state police and other policing agencies.

Regardless of the agency in charge of the disputed land, Mr. Champagne said, he was just glad a decision was made giving his office clear guidance on how to deal with the property.

“Our concern was straightforward: If someone is traveling through the area with a body and they got pulled over by tribal police, we didn’t want that suppressed,” Mr. Champagne said. “At the end of the day, if there are any felonies committed on that area, it falls on our office, sovereignty or not. We have to find a way to work with one another because they don’t have a prison or holding area.”

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