Oklahoma trooper tickets Native American citizen, sparking outrage from tribal leaders

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — An Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper ticketed a tribal citizen with a current Otoe-Missouria Tribe license plate for failing to pay state taxes, prompting an outcry from tribal leaders who blamed Gov. Kevin Stitt’s increasing hostility toward Native Americans.

Crystal Deroin, an Otoe-Missouria Tribe citizen, was ticketed for speeding near Enid on Tuesday and received a second $249 citation for failure to pay state motor vehicle taxes because she did not live on tribal land.

“After over 20 years of cooperation between the State and Tribes regarding vehicle tag registration, it appears the State has altered its position of understanding concerning tribal tags,” Otoe-Missouria Chairman John Shotton said in a statement. “This change was made without notice or consultation with all Tribes that operate vehicle tag registration.”

Most Oklahoma drivers pay motor vehicle taxes each year through the renewal of state license plates. But many of the 39 Native American tribes headquartered in Oklahoma also issue special tribal license plates to their citizens each year, based on a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving the Sac & Fox Nation that says the state doesn’t have the authority to tax tribal citizens who live in Indian Country.

Many tribal leaders say they have never experienced issues with Oklahoma law enforcement issuing tickets before.

But an Oklahoma Department of Public Safety spokeswoman said the 1993 ruling said Indians can only use a tribal tag if they reside and “principally garage” their vehicle in the tribe’s Indian country. In Deroin’s case, she lives near Enid, Oklahoma, which is about 45 miles (70 kilometers) from the Otoe-Missouria’s headquarters in Red Rock.

Three other Oklahoma-based tribes, the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations, also have separate agreements, called compacts, with the state that allow their citizens to use tribal tags regardless of where they live.

“Other than these two circumstances, all Oklahomans must register their vehicles with an Oklahoma tag and registration,” the agency said in a statement. “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.”

DPS spokeswoman Sarah Stewart said the law has been in place and enforced since the 1990s, but many tribal leaders dispute that assertion and blame the Stitt administration for the change.

“Governor Stitt’s position that Cherokee citizens living outside of the Cherokee Nation reservation unlawfully operate vehicles with Cherokee Nation tags is frankly, ignorant and unquestionably illegal,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. “Governor Stitt’s lawless and fact-free approach to tribal sovereignty is nothing new and his actions against our citizens will not be tolerated.”

Stitt, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, said his concern is that some tribal governments don’t share vehicle registration information with the Department of Public Safety, making it a “public safety issue that puts law enforcement and others at risk.” He said in a statement that members of tribes with valid compacts with the state won’t be ticketed.

Stitt has had an increasingly combative relationship with tribal nations in Oklahoma, stemming from a dispute over tribal casinos in his first year in office in 2019 in which a federal court sided with the tribes. The simmering conflict boiled over this year into the Republican-controlled Legislature, which overrode the governor’s veto of a bill to extend agreements on tribal sales of tobacco.

Stitt has said he’s trying to negotiate the best deal for all of the state’s 4 million residents, but in Oklahoma, where the tribes are vitally important to the economy, particularly in depressed rural areas, even fellow Republicans are scratching their heads at Stitt’s continued hostility.

Earlier this year, Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat described Stitt’s 2021 choice not to renew tribal hunting and fishing compacts a “stupid decision” that has cost the state $35 million. Stitt’s office said at the time the compacts were unfair because tribal citizens could purchase licenses at a cheaper rate.

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