Federal Suit Spotlights Aggressive Enforcement In Needles

The aggressive and overzealous tactics of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department in and around the county’s smallest and most remote city have become the subject of a federal lawsuit.
Members of the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe allege in that suit that the sheriff’s office and one deputy in particular as well as the district attorney’s office have overstepped state law enforcement authority by targeting tribal members for traffic citations on their reservation.
According to the suit, the sheriff’s department does not have legal jurisdiction on the Chemehuevi reservation, but one deputy, identified as Ronald Sindelar, has engaged in what is tantamount to racial profiling by staking out approaches to the 32,000-acre reservation and/or coming onto it to make traffic stops, issue tickets and, on occasion, impound vehicles.
The suit accuses the district attorney’s office and the county’s stable of in-house attorneys of abetting Sindelar and the department in this action.
On July 30 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles attorney Lester J. Marston filed a suit on behalf of Chelsea Lynn Bunim, Tommie Robert Ochoa, Jasmine Sansoucie and Naomi Lopez, naming as defendants sheriff John McMahon, deputy Ronald Sindelar, district attorney Michael Ramos, county counsel Jean-Rene Basle, and deputy county counsel Miles Kowalski. The suit seeks to have the sheriff’s department enjoined from citing tribal members on the reservation and prohibit the district attorney’s office from prosecuting any cases that arise from those citations. It further seeks monetary damages from the county including attorney’s fees and for pain and suffering
The suit references four “illegal” citations issued to motorists at some point along Havasu Lake Road: one issued by Sindelar on Valentines Day 2015 to Ochoa for an expired registration; a citation issued by Sindelar on February 21, 2015 to Sansoucie for having an expired license after she was stopped for driving a car with an out-of-state license plate; a citation for expired registration issued to Bunim on February 23, 2015 which resulted in her car being impounded and her paying a $521 retrieval fee; and a citation issued to Lopez by a deputy identified only by his last name – Wagner – for driving a car registered in Nevada after he pulled Lopez over for allegedly speeding.
Bunim was borrowing the car from her mother while hers was undergoing repairs.
Needles lies at the extreme east end of San Bernardino County on the banks of the Colorado River, directly across from Arizona. Nevada is less than ten miles up and across the river. Vehicles from multiple states are a common phenomenon in Needles.
Sansoucie was charged with a misdemeanor growing out of her suspended license citation. She fought the matter in court, seeking to have the case dismissed because the sheriff’s department and district attorney’s office did not have jurisdiction, simultaneously asking the district attorney’s office to drop the case, which it refused to do. Ultimately, according to Marston, San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Lisa Rogan on May 29 dismissed Sansoucie’s case based on the court’s lack of jurisdiction.
But the grounds for dismissal went beyond technical jurisdictional considerations, according to Marston. “There is no California law that prohibits people from driving a vehicle in the state of California that is registered in another state,” according to the lawsuit. “Deputy Sindelar, thus, had no probable cause to stop Ms. Sansoucie.”
In the traffic case against her, Bunim likewise filed a motion for dismissal on the grounds that the sheriff’s department did not have jurisdiction. The county counsel’s office lodged a motion with the court drafted by deputy county counsel Miles Kowalski holding that Bunim’s motion was both “untenable and legally indefensible” in that Wagner pulled her over and cited her along a stretch of Havasu Lake Road that is maintained by the county. Kowalski said that “allowing the county to enforce basic traffic safety laws on county maintained roads within the reservation does not ‘impermissibly infringe’ on the Chemehuevi tribe’s powers of self-government, nor would it ‘result in the destruction of tribal institutions and values,’” Kowalski wrote in his motion.
The Chemehuevi Indian Reservation was created by an act of Congress on March 3, 1853. The only exception to tribe jurisdiction on the reservation under the arrangement was schools built and maintained by the state. A century later, Congress passed Public Law 280, which transferred jurisdiction for Indian Country from the federal government to state governments. California was among five states given some criminal and civil jurisdiction over tribal lands. But Public Law 280 extended only to serious criminal matters and did not give the state power to enforce regulatory laws such as vehicle code infractions.
San Bernardino County has posited a theory that its authority on the reservation can be asserted through Public Law 280 and a more obscure code known as Section 36, which sets aside land on the Chemehuevi reservation for constructing schools. This land is outside the tribal boundaries, the county asserts, giving the county and its employees power of enforcement there.
That theory does not square with a 2006 opinion by Bill Lockyer, then the state attorney general, which hashed out a similar jurisdictional dispute between the Kings County sheriff and an Indian tribe.
“We conclude that California motor vehicle registration and driver’s license requirements are not subject to enforcement against Indian tribal members on roads within their Indian reservation,” Lockyer opined.
The San Bernardino County Sherriff’s Department and its deputies have a reputation for being overly assertive in dealing with the public in the Needles area. Needles was founded as and remains a railroad town. One of its major facilities is the Amtrak train station where large numbers of riders congregate. Sheriff’s deputies are known to routinely “roust” those waiting for the train to arrive, threatening them with arrest for loitering or vagrancy, and using the threat of such an arrest to carry out unconstitutional searches of the prospective train passengers’ baggage and personal effects. Waiting passengers who attempt to walk the few blocks from the train station to nearby fast food restaurants are routinely stopped and frisked.

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