Miami-Dade County

After baby ‘kidnapping’ scandal, tribal and county cops to get training on Indian law

Justin Johnson carga a su hija, Ingrid Ronan Johnson, en abril pasado. Agentes de la Policía miccosukke se llevaron a la menor del Hospital Baptist en marzo del 2018.
Justin Johnson carga a su hija, Ingrid Ronan Johnson, en abril pasado. Agentes de la Policía miccosukke se llevaron a la menor del Hospital Baptist en marzo del 2018. rkoltun@miamiherald.com

The Miccosukee police department, which normally patrols the tribe’s reservation deep in the Everglades, found its own actions under scrutiny when its officers seized a newborn baby from her mother at a hospital in Kendall.

The episode in March sowed confusion over whether the cops — acting on a tribal court order — actually had the authority to take baby Ingrid Johnson, who was returned to her Indian mother and white father days later. The incident led to a lawsuit against Baptist Hospital and tribal members, and rekindled tension between state authorities and the fiercely independent Miccosukee tribe.

But something positive has come out of the fiasco: Law enforcement officers, including tribal cops, will be getting a primer on Indian law during a first-of-its kind training in South Florida. The director and legal counsel for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Mike Andrews, will conduct the seminar Friday at Miami police headquarters; the committee oversees funding for tribal police departments nationwide.

The training was organized by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, which has clashed with the Miccosukee tribe numerous times over the years. At the time, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle called the taking of Baby Ingrid “horrific.”

“This event resulted in a lot of confusion and highlighted the lack of sufficient clarity for law enforcement, and other stakeholders, concerning these types of important jurisdictional issues,” Fernandez Rundle wrote in an invitation to police departments last month.

“It also highlighted a need to acquire more familiarity with some of the processes utilized by Native American tribes, especially within our jurisdiction.”

The baby’s father, Justin Johnson, called news of the training “phenomenal.”

“Hopefully, nothing like this ever happens again,” Johnson said. “Police officers are going to know what they can and can’t do.”

Ingrid Johnson was born at Baptist Hospital on March 16, to a Miccosukee mother named Rebecca Sanders, and Johnson, who is white.

The parents told the Miami Herald that the maternal grandmother, a tribal member, hated Johnson and behind their backs asked a tribal court for an “emergency order granting temporary custody” of Baby Ingrid to herself.

The father was kicked off hospital grounds. Later, two Miccosukee police detectives responded to the hospital, with Miami-Dade police for backup to carry out the order.

Miami-Dade cops said they were initially told it was a “federal court order” — not a tribal court order. Baptist Hospital acknowledged it received a “court order,” but said it cooperated because the county police were on the scene.

Johnson, in his lawsuit against the hospital, called the taking of Ingrid an “armed kidnapping.”

The removal of the baby drew harsh words from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who believed the tribe overstepped its authority by seizing the newborn outside the confines of the reservation.

The small Indian tribe, which numbers about 600 members, is considered a sovereign nation and has its own court system and police department, which generally do not have jurisdiction off the federally designated reservation deep in the Everglades.

Over the decades, state prosecutors have clashed with the tribe over serving subpoenas on the reservation in a murder case against a Miccouskee member; illegal tribal roadblocks on a state road; and even getting tribal police reports in a fatal crash involving Indians that happened off the reservation.

In the case of Ingrid, tribal lawyers said Miccosukee cops had authority to seize the baby under a federal law that mandates tribal court orders be afforded “full faith and protection” from state authorities. The Miami-Dade police legal bureau agreed.

Indian-law experts, however, have told the Miami Herald that the Miccosukee order needed to be first reviewed and endorsed by a Miami-Dade state court judge.

More than 100 people are slated to attend Friday’s training at the Miami police department training building. The session will include Miccosukee police officers, as well as tribal lawyers. The tribe’s chief counsel did not return calls for comment. Officers from other departments such as Pinecrest, Hialeah and the Florida Highway Patrol also will attend.

The biggest contingent will be from Miami-Dade police, which patrols in the western regions outside the reservation, the casino and the tribe’s Kendall golf course. Miami-Dade police’s legal bureau will attend, along with officers from the robbery, special victims and homicide bureaus.

“We want to make sure there is clarity and everyone understands the laws and procedures,” said Miami-Dade Deputy Director Freddy Ramirez.

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