Justin Hooper says all he wanted was to be tried in the proper court. Will Tulsa agree?
A Tulsa man finds himself at the center of a fight over tribal sovereignty in Oklahoma and beyond. Justin Hooper shares how his 2018 speeding ticket is continuing to impact law across Indian Country.
Justin Hooper remembers very clearly the day he was pulled over in August 2018 for speeding. He just bought a new truck and was blasting The Cure while cruising down Sheridan Avenue.
"I was actually headed to go meet some friends, and I was speeding, for lack of a better word," Hooper admitted with a boyish laugh.
Hooper said he clocked in 10 mph over the speed limit when he passed a Tulsa police officer. He remembered thinking to himself that he would shortly be seeing red and blue lights in his rearview mirror.
Hooper says he pulled himself over and waited for the officer. Sure enough, the officer obliged, and Hooper said he accepted the ticket.
But what happened next has been the subject of a nearly six-year legal battle over whether or not the City of Tulsa has the authority to ticket Native drivers for traffic violations in city limits. Hooper's case ultimately landed in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, where it was argued this summer, and Tulsa lost. The court said the city cannot ticket Native drivers when they break the law on Native land.
His case has become a flashpoint between tribal nations in Oklahoma and Gov. Kevin Stitt over whether cities and towns have the authority to ticket Indigenous drivers. It's also one of several cases rankling the governor and his administration over the strength of the McGirt v. Oklahoma decision, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled eastern Oklahoma is still Native land. Because of this decision, Native people in eastern Oklahoma can only be prosecuted in federal or tribal courts for felony crimes. The ruling also applies to civil issues.
Hooper says he paid the $150 fine for speeding, but insisted he was not subject to the City of Tulsa's jurisdiction.
"From the day I got pulled over, I thought that it was wrong," Hooper said. He called his lawyer John Dunn, who agreed to take up the case.
The 47-year-old Choctaw citizen remembers telling Dunn, "How can somebody write you a ticket on your own land when you’re Native? It just doesn't seem like that's right.”
Even though the McGirt decision was settled, the question of who has civil jurisdiction is still very much alive in the minds of Tulsa city leaders, who challenged Hooper's claim that the city cannot collect ticket fines from Native drivers like himself.
The Muscogee Nation filed a lawsuit just weeks after Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum announced at his State of the City address that he wanted to work with the tribes to create a tribal-municipal framework of governance that would resolve these legal disputes.
“I’m committed to meeting with the tribal governments as frequently and as long as we have to meet to work this out. And if we can get that framework worked out, all that litigation that the city is involved in is irrelevant, and we’ll be out of that business,” he said.
But the Muscogee Nation says the city continues to ticket Native drivers, despite the order from the 10th Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in McGirt.
Bynum put much of the onus to work together on the tribes, arguing Native people abide by city codes and ordinances.
Others in Tulsa’s city government want to get the lawsuits behind them.
“[The tribes] are part of our community. They do a lot for our community in so many ways, and their relationship is important to our city,” said Tulsa City Council Vice President Jeannie Cue.
A speeding ticket causes an uproar
The City of Tulsa claims they have jurisdiction to ticket drivers like Hooper under a pre-statehood law known as the Curtis Act, an 1898 law meant to force allotment on tribal governments. The law dealt a blow to tribal governments as it dissolved tribal courts and paved the way for statehood.
In their brief to the 10th Circuit, Tulsa said that under section 14 of the Curtis Act “all inhabitants” of cities and towns organized under Arkansas law, “without regard to race, shall be subject to all laws and ordinances of such city or town governments, and shall have equal rights, privileges, and protections therein.”
It was an argument put forth by the Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police in the fall of 2020 along with the Oklahoma Municipal Assurance Group attorney Matt Love as a way to challenge the summer's McGirt ruling.
In 2021, the Cherokee Nation's then-Attorney General Sara Hill wrote, "Tulsa’s reliance on pre-statehood statutes is contrary to McGirt, which rejected Oklahoma’s similar argument, noting that the statutes were only ‘statutory artifacts’ from Oklahoma’s ‘territorial history.’”
Dunn said if the city really wanted to win on his client's case, they would have argued under the merits of a 2021 case known as Oklahoma v. Wallace, where the state declined to grant post-conviction relief to cases that were settled before the McGirt decision. Dunn said the City wanted to test the waters on whether the Curtis Act would apply — and lost.
Now, he says the city is trying to use the Supreme Court's ruling in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, which granted the state concurrent jurisdiction when felony crimes are committed by non-Natives against Native people on Indian land.
A balancing test for Oklahoma?
Hooper ultimately prevailed, but Tulsa has refused to concede his case — and has drawn additional litigation about ticketing Native drivers in the meantime.
In a federal lawsuit filed last month, the Muscogee Nation accuses Tulsa Police of continuing to ticket Native drivers despite the order from the Hooper case and the McGirt ruling.
Tulsa officials claim they still have concurrent jurisdiction, meaning they believe they can prosecute such cases based on Castro-Huerta v. Oklahoma.
Castro-Huerta was something the Muscogee Nation and Hooper claimed the city did not raise as an issue in their complaint when they argued the case last spring.
Tulsa is also using another legal argument known as the "Bracker balancing test," which stems from a 1980 Supreme Court ruling known as White Mountain Apache v. Bracker. It requires weighing whose interest matters more when a state attempts to regulate or tax "conduct of non-tribal persons on the reservation." The state wants to use this argument, too.
A federal judge is expected to dismiss Hooper's case, even though the city is urging him not to, based on Castro-Huerta and two lines issued by Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Brett Kavanaugh when they asked whether or not traffic codes can be enforced against Native drivers.
"The City of Tulsa’s application for a stay raises an important question: whether the City may enforce its municipal laws against American Indians in Tulsa. For example, may Indians in Tulsa violate the City’s traffic safety laws without enforcement by the City?" wrote Kavanaugh and Alito.
‘Simply about the money’
Geri Wisner, the Muscogee Nation's Attorney General, says the tribal nation has been willing to meet with the city over traffic citations, but so far it's been unsuccessful. She says the tribal nation receives cases that are major crimes and misdemeanor cases.
"However, with respect to our traffic tickets that also clearly should be sent to the tribe under the McGirt ruling, we do not receive those. And we feel that that is blatant oversight and they are ignoring the law," Wisner said.
Tulsa police declined to comment on the pending litigation and referred to the mayor’s office.
The mayor’s spokesperson Michelle Brooks reiterated Bynum’s remarks at his State of the City address, arguing the mayor is eager to work with tribal partners to “render litigation unnecessary.”
“This latest lawsuit is a duplication of several lawsuits that are already pending in state and federal courts to decide these issues,” Brooks said.
If Tulsa can’t ticket Native drivers — and refuses to strike a deal with the tribes — it would lose all revenue from these tickets. It’s unclear how much revenue that represents. A records request with the city on traffic ticket revenues hasn’t yet been fulfilled.
Despite Bynum expressing a desire for legal clarity in Hooper’s case, Wisner believes this is the reason the city refuses to settle.
"At the end of the day, is it simply about money,” she said.
But cities in eastern Oklahoma can still collect some ticket revenue thanks to agreements with the tribes whose land they’re on. The Cherokee Nation alone has 30 such agreements with cities inside its boundaries. This includes the tribe’s capital of Tahlequah, where the city keeps all but $30 from each traffic ticket.
In July, the city of Verdigris signed an agreement with the Cherokee Nation that allowed it to keep part of the revenue. Verdigris Police Chief Jack Shackleford says the agreement makes the legal side of traffic enforcement easier for his officers.
“Instead of having to send everybody over to Tahlequah to the Cherokee tribal courts, we can handle their cases here, unless they want to contest it,” Shackleford said.
Wisner said they've tried to have conversations with the city over revenue, but so far hasn't been successful, which is why they are suing the city.
‘I just pray every day that it all works out’
Tulsa’s officials continue to work with the tribes even as the city refuses to settle pertinent litigation.
In September, the Cherokee Nation gave a $150,000 public safety grant to the city. Bynum said the grant would be mostly used to buy a new trailer for emergency management and technology upgrades for Tulsa police.
In January, Tulsa officials formally ratified an agreement with the Muscogee Nation and the city of Jenks to build a low-water dam across the Arkansas River. The dam will create a lake in the river body, which Bynum believes will spur recreational activities in the area.
At the ceremony for the dam, Bynum said governments “all win” when they set aside their egos and work together.
When asked about the litigation, Councilwoman Cue said the city needs a close relationship with the tribes and their law enforcement to ensure public safety.
“I just pray every day that it all works out, because we’re all Tulsans, and we’ve all got to work together to make this city better,” she said.
Maybe the system needs to change?
Traffic citations aren't the only issues the City of Tulsa and the Governor of Oklahoma are raising in their efforts to limit the McGirt ruling.
Next year, the Oklahoma Supreme Court will hear Muscogee Nation citizen Alicia Stroble's request to grant her back taxes from 2017-2019, a ruling initially granted by the Oklahoma Tax Commission but then appealed.
"What we've been fighting and briefing and arguing for all these courts is that there is really no such thing as a reservation for only criminal purposes," Joseph Williams, an attorney practicing Indian law, said. He's representing a Choctaw couple who are also trying to claw back taxes.
"And by the treaties that created the reservations. Nothing in the treaties said that these reservations were going to be established for only criminal purposes either. So they're wrong in the law, but they're going to continue to fight this all the way."
Hooper says he's ready for the fight.
He says growing up with his mom, a Choctaw citizen, taught him something about fighting bureaucracy — in this case, fighting the Bureau of Indian Affairs to get them to pay his mother's expenses from her own money.
"My mom was always dragging me down there dealing with royalty stuff. And she would always make it a point to teach me about this stuff, to explain to me that there were two sets of laws — for one for Native people, and one for regular citizens."
He said he's had people threaten him over the ticket, but he contends he didn't get away with anything.
"I paid the ticket. It just needed to be tried in the right place. What was right is what needed to be done. That's just all there is to it. Right is right. And the problem is, is that people don't educate themselves," Hooper said. "If a single traffic ticket can cause this many problems in a system, then maybe that system needs to change."