As for the Miccosukee police, the state-certified police agency frequently applies state law to arrest non-Indians near the reservation, yet refers Indians who are charged to their private tribal court, which is closed to non-Indians.
Three years ago, Miami-Dade prosecutors ripped the department’s handling of a January 2009 auto wreck on Tamiami Trial involving tribe members and a Kendall woman who died.
Citing the tribe’s sovereign status, the department at first refused to turn over to prosecutors reports and photos from the crash scene, even though it happened four miles west of Krome Avenue on a state road, well away from the tribe’s federally protected reservation.
The tribal police has some authority to patrol the Tamiami Trail — U.S. 41 — under a longtime agreement with the county. It does not have the same agreement for Loop Road.
The Loop Road stops began in 2004, spurring complaints from residents as the tribe tried unsuccessfully to lobby lawmakers to increase its police authority in Collier and Monroe counties.
The reason: Drug dealers and other criminals were flocking to the homes of tribe members, who were flush with gambling proceeds.
Then-Miccosukee Chairman Billy Cypress said at the time that the “minimally intrusive” checkpoints were simply protecting their residents, calling the traffic stops a “homeland security” measure.
Ultimately, then-Miami-Dade County Manager George Burgess sent a letter asking tribal police to stop the practice or risk losing the county’s permission for the tribe to “maintain” the road.
After the complaints, the police softened their tactics, recalled Dave Ward, then the Miccosukee police chief. Non-Indians who were not visiting tribe members “were sent on their way.”
“We didn’t stop people. We didn’t pursue people. It wasn’t supposed to even be called a checkpoint. It was more of a watch,” Ward said. “We were the only meaningful police out there, and many people appreciated that.”
But in 2008, one year after Ward was fired, the Miccosukee Tribal Council adopted a more-aggressive approach.
In a copy of the tribal police’s “standard operating procedures” obtained by The Miami Herald, the tribe mandated that “all vehicles” entering Loop Road must be stopped, with a “Be on the Lookout” bulletin being issued for any car that refused to stop.
The police procedures mandate that non-tribal members must be “logged in” — and if any refuse, Miccosukee officers must note their destination, vehicle description and tag number.
“If they appear suspicious, or refuse to give their destination, have a relief officer follow the vehicle, and make sure they are not going to any of the Miccosukee residences,” according to the procedures.
Lucky Cole, a longtime resident who lives with his wife about seven miles down Loop Road, said it is not uncommon to see officers turning away tourists “and people who don’t know any better.”
“As far as constitutional rights, it’s just wrong,” said Cole, who no longer stops at the checkpoint.
David Fireman, the chief ranger at Big Cypress, said the stops have continued to nag employees and their families.
“It’s a unique situation,” Fireman said. “We do have to respect people’s private property, but public lands are supposed to open.”