Cross the line and you're safe

An American Indian driving south of Winner is about to crash. The vehicle rolls into the north ditch, just on the other side of Winner tribal housing, about a quarter-mile south of town. Tripp County law enforcement arrives on scene to discover t...

Wagner Police Chief Tim Simonsen, left, and Yankton Sioux Tribal Police Chief Chris Saunsoci have a strong working relationship when dealing with individuals who commit crime in one's jurisdiction and hides out in the other's. (Matt Gade/Republic)
Wagner Police Chief Tim Simonsen, left, and Yankton Sioux Tribal Police Chief Chris Saunsoci have a strong working relationship when dealing with individuals who commit crime in one's jurisdiction and hides out in the other's. (Matt Gade/Republic)

An American Indian driving south of Winner is about to crash.

The vehicle rolls into the north ditch, just on the other side of Winner tribal housing, about a quarter-mile south of town. Tripp County law enforcement arrives on scene to discover the victim had been drinking and driving. Before they can arrest the man for DUI, he scampered to the south side of 279th Street, to Rosebud tribal land -- beyond the authority of Tripp County officials.

"That has happened several times," said Tripp County Sheriff Chip Schroeder. "It's just crazy."

Law enforcement in South Dakota say the problem of Indians fleeing to tribal land after committing a crime on state land to avoid being arrested is common. State and tribal officers also say Indians will flee to state land after committing crimes on tribal land to avoid getting caught.

There are nine Indian reservations in South Dakota, three of which are in The Daily Republic's coverage area. There are also millions of acres of tribal trust land in South Dakota, 304,099.95 acres of which are in the south central part of the state in Buffalo, Charles Mix, Gregory, Lyman and Tripp counties.


Through treaties and acts at the federal level, Indian Nations have sovereign power. They form their own governments in tribal councils, have their own court systems and their own police forces, meaning state officials have no authority on reservations. But, the tribes are bound by federal laws.

Unfortunately, Schroeder said, law enforcement officials are forced to play a waiting game to arrest these lawbreakers. It's a frustrating, they say.

Schroeder, a law-enforcement official for 33 years, has been sheriff of Tripp County for 24 years.

"It's always been that way and I suspect it will be that way for the next 24 years," he said.

When an Indian commits a crime, like drunken driving, on state land, but then goes to tribal land to avoid being arrested, state law enforcement cannot follow. The best they can do is request a warrant and wait for that suspect to come back to state land.

When Schroeder is able to arrest a suspect on a warrant, that person is placed in jail, attends a court hearing and often is released on bond.

"Then if they go onto tribal ground and fail to show up for their next court hearing, we're in the same thing again," Schroeder said. "Even though they're out on bond, we can't serve a warrant for their failure to appear if they're on tribal ground."

Tribal officials see similar issues when non-Indians cross into Indian Country. Officials said that if a non-Indian commits a victimless crime, like driving under the influence, on Indian land, state police have jurisdiction no matter where that person is. But, if a non-Indian commits a crime against an American Indian, like a burglary, tribal police have jurisdiction.


In Tripp County, all tribal land is overseen by the Rosebud Bureau of Indian Affairs. Oftentimes, those officers are not immediately available in Tripp County. Despite that, if a crime is called in to the local authorities, Tripp County Sheriff's Office cannot respond. They must say the reporting party has to wait for Rosebud BIA.

"We live with it daily," Schroeder said. "Because we have no jurisdiction, we are not allowed to help those people. And we respect their sovereignty. There might be help minutes away, but they have to wait for hours sometimes."

He added Rosebud police do not work with his office. Rosebud Law Enforcement could not be reached for comment.

Schroeder added it's frustrating, particularly because Indians on tribal land are still residents of Tripp County, which is 2,025 square miles. Of the county's 1,028,233.25 acres, there are 64,362.41 acres of tribal land the county and state law enforcement cannot touch.

Many times, Indians who have warrants out for their arrest know it and will speak with law enforcement, but stand just inside tribal land barriers to avoid being arrested.

"We might be standing two feet apart, but I still can't arrest them," Schroeder said.

Schroeder said there is no cooperation between state and tribal law enforcement in his area. He doesn't see the issue resolving any time soon, and said it will take a federal act to change it.

"The losers in this deal are the residents, whether they're on trust or state land," Schroeder said. "People can work the system and basically get away with it, not forever, but for longer than they should."


Working together, but apart

Half of Charles Mix County is considered the Yankton Sioux Reservation, but the most recent federal ruling is the lines no longer exist. However, according to the county's assessor's office, Charles Mix County has 40,064 acres of tribal land, out of the county's total 737,180 acres.

There are varying degrees of cooperation among state and tribal law enforcement, according to both sides.

Wagner Police Chief Tim Simonsen said he deals with occasional issues regarding Indians fleeing to tribal ground after committing crimes on state land, or vice versa. The difference between Simonsen's and Schroeder's jurisdictions is the Yankton Sioux Tribal Police works with Wagner's officers.

Simonsen said his department has a good working relationship with Yankton Sioux Tribal Police. It's not an official mutual aid agreement, but they check with each other on all calls.

Recently, a suspect fled from the scene of a fatal stabbing in tribal housing in Wagner with two other people in the vehicle. Simonsen said one of his officers stopped that vehicle on state ground and radioed tribal police to get permission to detain them on the tribal charges.

"Our biggest goal is to keep people safe," Simonsen said.

He said having the relationship with tribal police has helped get dangerous people off the streets.


Yankton Sioux Tribal Police Chief Chris Saunsoci said the handshake agreement his office has with Wagner works wonderfully.

"If a person runs to avoid arrest and goes toward jurisdictional boundaries, we contact the agency that does have jurisdiction and continue following that individual," Saunsoci said.

If his officers are able to catch up with that person on state land, they detain the suspect and wait for state law enforcement to arrive.

"We work very, very well with the city of Wagner and work well with the Highway Patrol, too," Saunsoci said. "We work well with the (Charles Mix) sheriff's office when it comes to officer safety issues."

Saunsoci said, though, he hopes to have a better working relationship with the sheriff's office in the future.

While the Yankton Sioux Tribal Police has a dispatch contract with Charles Mix, he feels the service could be better. Saunsoci is often disappointed his officers don't receive enough information when responding to a call.

"We want a mutual aid agreement," Saunsoci said. "Our goal is to work with all agencies."

It wasn't until recently the Yankton Sioux Tribe started its own police force rather than relying on the Bureau of Indian Affairs police. Saunsoci added he's only been to one meeting during which a mutual aid agreement was briefly discussed.


Charles Mix County Sheriff Randy Thaler has been in law enforcement in the area for nearly 20 years. In the last four years in his position of sheriff, Thaler has tried to push for a formal mutual aid agreement between his office and Yankton Sioux Tribal law enforcement.

He said his office works well with tribal police, but he wants to make it easier to work with them through a formal agreement.

"It's all under the letter of the law where we have jurisdiction and where we don't," Thaler said. "I'm not looking for cross deputization to allow us to arrest on tribal land, but looking for mutual aid, to be able to call for backup and we can be there, and vice versa for tribal officers to assist on state land."

Thaler said he's disappointed talks haven't gotten further, but hopes something can get put in place while he's still in office.

He said it's frustrating when his officers can't arrest someone who's committed a crime in the county and finds a safe haven on tribal land to avoid arrest.

"It hampers our police work and prolongs the system or process when we have to wait for someone to be arrested elsewhere in order to face the court system for what they're suspected of doing," Thaler said.

As it sits, Thaler and his deputies strictly follow the laws -- if Indians call the sheriff's office requesting help, Thaler's officers and dispatchers must send that call on to tribal police, even if Thaler's officers are in an immediate position to help.

"We have to look at the legal aspect. We can't legally be out there (on tribal land) enforcing the law," Thaler said. "That's why I feel the mutual aid agreement needs to be put in place. Then we could respond to a situation, control it until they get there to make an arrest."


Thaler said it is frustrating to not be able to help Indians when they call for help because they are residents of Charles Mix County.

He said if a situation on tribal land became so extreme that life may be in danger, he may give authorization for his deputies to respond to the situation.

Saunsoci feels the relationship between the sheriff's office and his office could improve. He cited an incident in 2013 when county dispatch relayed information to a tribal officer of a disturbance on tribal land, but didn't give any further information. He said he requested assistance, but none came until officers with the Wagner police and BIA responded.

"Jurisdiction would not be an issue if all our agencies would be able to work together and be on the same page," Saunsoci said.

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