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Some tribes aren't sharing information with Oklahoma law enforcement amid license plate dust up

Oklahoma State Capitol Building
Kyle Phillips
For Oklahoma Voice
Oklahoma State Capitol Building

A handful of Oklahoma-based tribes are refusing to share their tag information with law enforcement amid ongoing anger and frustration over an abrupt change in how state law enforcement is enforcing license plate policies for Indigenous residents.

The Department of Public Safety’s sudden decision to ticket Oklahoma drivers with tribal vehicle tags but reside outside their tribe’s official boundaries also helped derail negotiations with the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, said Sharon Scott, president of the Oklahoma Intertribal Tax Association.

Some tribal leaders are frustrated over a “combative” relationship with the Turnpike Authority, Scott said. The agency has struggled to bill some Indigenous motorists that have tribal tags because it cannot access vehicle registration information.

Some smaller tribes, meanwhile, don’t view the one-size-fits-all model vehicle compacts being pushed by the governor as a solution to solve the information-sharing problem. The loss of tax commission revenue would be harmful to smaller tribes as it is one of the largest revenue streams.

“Compacts aren’t a one-size fits all for all tribal nations,” said Scott, who also serves as executive director of the Seminole Nation Business and Corporate Regulatory Commission, which is essentially the tax commission for the tribe.

Scott made the remarks at the Joint Committee on State-Tribal Relations meeting Monday where lawmakers approved new motor vehicle registration and license tag compacts with the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations.

Trevor Pemberton, an attorney for Gov. Kevin Stitt, said the three tribes are the only ones to have motor vehicle compacts, though Stitt’s office has offered to enter into model compacts with a number of others. The Cherokee Nation’s existing compact is set to expire at the end of the year and is currently being renegotiated.

Scott said 27 of the 33 tribes that issue their own tags currently share their information with the Oklahoma Law Enforcement Telecommunications System, also known as OLETS. She did not name the six tribes that are not participating in the statewide system that facilitates a formal exchange of information between law enforcement agencies. It contains information like driving records and criminal histories.

She said when news broke in November that DPS had started enforcing the plate violations, the six tribes no longer wanted to discuss participating in the statewide database. Scott said two tribes fundamentally do not want to share their information with law enforcement, but do have a mechanism in place to allow their information to be accessed. The tribes utilize the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“There are some tribes that have pulled back and said, ‘You know, we’re going to think about the combative nature of the Turnpike Authority. We’re going to pull back. We’re not going to share information with OLETS anymore.’ And, I’ve cautioned against that because then you’re creating a public safety issue that wasn’t there prior to November of last year,” Scott said

Scott’s remarks come as Stitt continues to ramp up pressure on tribal nations to enter into compacts and ensure Indigenous citizens are paying their fair share to use the state’s cashless turnpike network.

Five Indigenous residents have been ticketed in recent months for possessing tribal vehicle tags while residing outside their tribe’s official boundaries, Scott said. It’s an extremely small percentage of those who have tribal plates, but it was enough to significantly ramp up tensions between state and tribal leaders.

House Majority Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, said refusal to participate in OLETS is “dangerous,” “scary” and “disrespectful” to tribal and nontribal law enforcement alike. He warned that lawmakers may have to intervene with legislation next year if tribal leaders aren’t willing to come to the table and have conversations to resolve the situation.

He said he respects that compacting is a sovereign decision, but refusing to share registration information is a “real public safety issue” for all Oklahomans.

“It seems to me that the majority of our sovereign nations agree with my concern that not letting law enforcement know who they’re pulling over is disrespectful to our men and women in law enforcement and very, very dangerous,” Echols said.

OTA disputeScott said when she first heard that OTA was struggling to access plate information, she set up a meeting with the agency and 19 tribes to discuss the issue.

She said the participating tribes told OTA that they freely give their information to law enforcement as part of a public safety measure to ensure that their members and law enforcement are safe.

But Scott said OTA is a separate entity which generates revenue. She said when OTA shares data with other states, they get a portion of the proceeds. Tribes do not.

“If we’re going to share our information then we need to talk about sharing revenue, a portion,” Scott said. “We’re not saying 100% of the income of the proceeds you get from our tribal tags should come back to us, we’re just saying a revenue share because they do that with other governments, other state governments.”

She said many tribal citizens have Pikepasses that allow them to use Oklahoma turnpikes. She said OTA officials realized last year that they couldn’t read tribal tags, and that there was no mechanism to match the Pikepass with their plates until September of last year.

“The feedback that I’ve gotten is that because of OTA’s poor planning, they’ve lost out on revenue,” Scott said.

She said of OTA’s uncollectible revenue, only 35% is from tribal tags.

Lisa Shearer-Salim, a spokesperson for OTA, said the agency put an emphasis on converting to cashless tolling in a much shorter timespan due to motorist and worker safety concerns.

“We’ve known that we would need to work through billing those who previously paid in cash and that would include conversations with tribal nations,” she said. “When the agency met with tribal leaders last year, OTA was encouraged by those leaders to seek a legislative solution to gain access to the information that the tribes were already providing to the Department of Public Safety through the OLETS system.”

OTA cannot statutorily access tribal tag information provided to OLETS because that information is limited to law enforcement use only.

She said they worked to pass Senate Bill 1907, which didn’t advance. OTA remains open to ongoing dialogue with tribes.

Any customers with a PikePass receive monthly statements for tolls owed, and no revenue has been lost in that way. Nearly 90% of all turnpike users pay tolls online.

Of the remaining 10% — the largest loss of revenue is due to obscured license plates, temporary tags or not having registered vehicle owner information, mainly because of tribal tags.

OTA cannot access the registered vehicle information for any tribes except the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes, she said.

OTA has agreements with 48 states to access vehicle registration information, but does not share toll revenue with any other states, Shearer-Salim said.

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

Janelle Stecklein is editor of Oklahoma Voice. An award-winning journalist, Stecklein has been covering Oklahoma government and politics since moving to the state in 2014.
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