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Muscogee (Creek) Nation sues Tulsa over traffic ticket enforcement

tulsa city hall from across the street
Matt Trotter
Tulsa City Hall

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Muscogee (Creek) Nation has accused Tulsa of unlawfully prosecuting Native Americans for traffic offenses within its tribal boundaries, despite multiple court rulings that strip the city of this authority.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, the tribal nation asked the Tulsa federal court to forbid the city to pursue any criminal court proceedings or municipal citations against Native Americans for incidents that take place within the Creek Reservation.

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation also asked the court to award the tribe reimbursement for attorney fees and “other relief as the Court deems just and appropriate.”

Muscogee leaders said the matter is a threat to the tribe’s autonomy as a sovereign nation with its own court system.

“We continue to welcome government-to-government cooperation with the city of Tulsa,” Hill said in a statement. “But we will not stand by and watch the city disregard our sovereignty and our own laws by requiring Muscogee and other tribal citizens to respond to citations in Tulsa city court because of the city’s make-believe legal theories.”

The city declined to comment on the specific accusations in the case.

“As Mayor (G.T.) Bynum stated two weeks ago in his State of the City address, he is eager to work with tribal partners to resolve these issues and render litigation unnecessary,” spokesperson Michelle Brooks said. “This latest lawsuit is a duplication of several lawsuits that are already pending in state and federal courts to decide these issues. As such, the City of Tulsa has no further comment at this time.”

In its landmark McGirt ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Native Americans who commit crimes within tribal boundaries must be prosecuted in either tribal or federal court, not state court.

The Court also ruled that the Five Tribes’ original reservation boundaries were never disestablished.

That had considerable implications for Tulsa. About half of the city falls within the original Muskogee (Creek) Reservation.

Since the McGirt ruling in 2020, Tulsa has referred more than 2,600 felony and misdemeanor cases to the tribe’s court system, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation said.

“Tulsa has generally declined to refer just one category of offenses: traffic offenses,” the lawsuit states.

A traffic ticket already has been overturned on McGirt grounds.

Earlier this year, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Choctaw Nation member Justin Hooper, who challenged a $150 citation from the city of Tulsa. The appeals court agreed that, under the McGirt ruling, the city lacked jurisdiction to prosecute Hooper because it was a violation committed by a Native American on reservation land.

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation lawsuit is the latest dispute over tribal sovereignty as it relates to traffic law.

Last week, multiple tribes said they were blindsided when the Oklahoma Highway Patrol ticketed a Native American woman for failure to pay state taxes because she had a tribal license plate but lived outside of her tribe’s boundaries.

The state Department of Public Safety said the ticket was justified under a 30-year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

The Court decided in a 1993 case that Oklahoma tribal members can register a vehicle through their tribe if they reside within their tribe’s official boundaries. Only tribes that have a valid compact with the state can issue tribal license plates to their members regardless of where they live.

Despite the precedent, the ticket over tribal tags appeared to catch tribal leaders and members off guard.

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation operates its own tag agencies and does not have a compact with the state over vehicle registration. It and other tribes said they would determine whether any legal action is necessary to settle the dispute.

This story is from nonprofit news outlet Oklahoma Voice.

Nuria Martinez-Keel covers education for Oklahoma Voice. She worked in newspapers for six years, more than four of which she spent at The Oklahoman covering education and courts. Nuria is an Oklahoma State University graduate.