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Federal Judge Rules in Favor of Oglala Sioux Tribe, Affirms Treaty-Based Duty to Fund Law Enforcement

25 May 23

On May 23, 2023, U.S. District Judge Roberto A. Lange issued an Opinion and Order in Oglala Sioux Tribe v. Haaland et al, 5:22-CV-05066-RAL (DSD) holding that the United States owes a treaty-based duty to fund law enforcement for the Oglala Sioux Tribe. The ruling, which is the first to acknowledge that the government owes a treaty-based duty to fund law enforcement for any Indian tribe, allows the Tribe to pursue its claims that the federal government breached its trust duty and treaty obligations by not providing adequate law enforcement resources.

The lawsuit asserts that the federal government is failing to fulfill its treaty and trust duties by providing inadequate funding for law enforcement. In its decision, the Court denied the Defendants Motion to dismiss the complaint. The Court recognized that in recent years the Tribe lost over half of its police officers due to ongoing federal underfunding of law enforcement, while at the same time crime on the reservation has skyrocketed. The Court stated that the evidence "made clear that the level of violent crime, drug trafficking, gang activity and trauma on the Reservation is staggering, unprecedented, and overwhelming law enforcement resources."

The Court also granted the Tribe's request for a preliminary injunction in part, ordering the United States to meet with the Tribe to amend the law enforcement contracts to reflect "what amount is necessary to satisfy the United States' treaty-based duty to the Tribe concerning protection and law enforcement support and cooperation." The Court ruled that the defendants cannot legally disregard their lawful duties of "protection, cooperation, and support of the Tribe's law enforcement."

In a press release, Oglala Sioux Tribal President Star Comes Out stated, "We are hopeful the United States abides by the Court's direction immediately, and provides the Tribe with the resources needed to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis on the Pine Ridge Reservation as soon as possible. However, if the government continues its failure to honor its treaty-based duties, the Tribe will look forward to proving at trial that the United States has violated its treaty obligations to fund law enforcement at Pine Ridge and that the Tribe is legally entitled to adequate funding for 120 fully equipped law enforcement officers." Chief of Police Algin Young stated, "On behalf of the Oglala Sioux Tribe Department of Public Safety, I thank the Tribe's past and present leadership for having both the wisdom and courage to challenge the United States' ongoing under-funding of law enforcement on the Pine Ridge Reservation …The decision marks the first step toward alleviating the long-standing 'humanitarian crisis' at Pine Ridge that stems from the United States' chronic under-funding of the Tribe's law enforcement."

The Peebles Kidder team representing the Tribe in this case includes partners Ben Fenner, Conly Schulte, Rebecca Kidder, and Tim Hennessy, as well as Of Counsel Steve Bloxham. The Tribe is also represented by attorney Patty Marks in the litigation.