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The law of the land


Published April 2, 2004

Native American women and children are victims of domestic abuse at rates that are among the highest in the country for any minority group. Yet, if a measure being pushed hard by the Miccosukee Indian Tribe becomes law, local policing agencies would be barred from responding to calls for help on reservation land.

The Miccosukees say they want out from under the state criminal justice system. If tribes are truly autonomous sovereigns within U.S. territory, they assert, then they should be subject to federal law enforcement only. Billy Cypress, the tribe's chairman, compares the tribe's situation to having Alabama sheriffs oversee Florida's law enforcement. To rectify this, the Miccosukees are backing SB 1288, a bill that would give control over all crimes committed on its lands to tribal authorities and the federal government.

The Miccosukees have pursued this change in law with remarkable vigor over the last two legislative sessions. Using its wealth of casino money, the tribe has employed an army of lobbyists and contributed heavily to lawmakers' campaigns. But their cause has run up against significant opposition, including the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, all 67 sheriffs and the state attorneys across Florida. The state's law enforcement community questions whether non-Indians who come on Miccosukee land to gamble, play golf or enjoy other tourist activities will receive equal protection and justice from tribal police and courts. Will crimes committed by tribe members be duly punished? In at least one prominent case, a police investigation into a murder thought to be committed by a tribe member was hampered when agents had difficulty accessing witnesses on tribal land.

While the Miccosukees do maintain a trained and locally certified police force, any state control to maintain standards of policing would be relinquished if the law is changed. And the FBI is no substitute. The Miami office of the FBI handles all of South Florida, the Caribbean and South America. The office, with its current focus on counterterrorism, simply does not have the resources to investigate the plethora of offenses that might occur at the many Miccosukee recreation destinations.

The Miccosukees point out that Florida is one of only a handful of states that still subject its Indian reservations to state jurisdiction. But as the reservations become meccas for gambling and other pursuits by non-tribe members, and as the Miccosukees buy up more facilities and land to expand their operations, the need for uniform crime control and prevention becomes heightened. Today, the rationale for the state to continue to assert criminal justice jurisdiction is even greater than in years past. The power to uphold the law in this state is not one to be relinquished so lightly.

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