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Oklahoma Highway Patrol gives ticket over tribal plate, potentially changing decades of policing precedent

Oklahoma trooper on side of the road.
Oklahoma Department of Public Safety
Oklahoma trooper on side of the road.

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol appears to be abandoning decades of precedent of honoring many tribal nation car tags.

The move is a major shift that penalizes tribal citizens who live outside their nation’s boundaries for not having state of Oklahoma plates.

The Otoe-Missouria Tribe announced one of its citizens was given a $249 ticket for failure to pay state taxes on their motor vehicle.

“This change was made without notice or consultation with all Tribes that operate vehicle tag registration,” Otoe-Missouria Chairman John Shotton said in a written statement. “We are concerned about this change and are reviewing all legal options to address this issue. Once again, consultation and/or diplomacy with the tribal governments prior to this policy implementation would have been helpful to avoid this difficult situation.”

The violation was not a primary offense, meaning the driver was pulled over for another reason, then ticketed for the tag. Nothing about the apparent policy change indicates drivers will simply be pulled over for having tribal tags, as troopers would have to verify a citizen lives outside their nation's boundaries before giving a citation.

The reasoning, The Oklahoman first reported, is that she lived outside her tribal nation’s boundaries.

The ticket sent shockwaves throughout Indian Country. Tribal citizens have routinely driven cars with their nation’s tags without penalty for years in Oklahoma. The move won’t affect tribes that have compacted with the state, including the Choctaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw Nations.

Gov. Kevin Stitt said in a written statement that he supports the move by the highway patrol and Oklahoma’s Department of Public Safety.

“This is addressing a significant public safety issue that puts law enforcement and others at risk,” he said in a statement. “If tribal governments won’t share vehicle registration information with DPS, we can’t keep our officers and our streets safe. Members of tribes with valid compacts that provide needed car registration information will not be ticketed.”

Stitt is referencing an issue that first came to light amid problems the state had with implementing PlatePay.

The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority started using this cashless system, which they call PlatePay, in 2021. Over the summer, most of the state’s turnpikes began using it, letting drivers bypass toll booths.

However, for about 1 in 20 vehicles on the road, the system doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. It was having problems reading some tribal tags.

Because of the bug, turnpike travelers with tribal tags racked up nearly $5 million of unbilled tolls just between mid-May and mid-July. The OTA projects that over a full year, those numbers could reach $11 million for tribal tags and $7 million for paper temp tags.

Though tribal leaders and the Turnpike Authority vowed they were working on the issue.

Stitt also said in his statement that, “Oklahoma Highway Patrol is simply enforcing the law and following U.S. Supreme Court precedent.”

The governor is referencing the 1993 case Oklahoma Tax Commission v. Sac & Fox. That case ruled that tribal nations could issue tags to their citizens as long as they were “garaged,” in that tribal nation’s boundaries.

However, since that time tribal nations have been issuing tags to citizens in Oklahoma and outside their boundaries without them receiving $249 tickets for a failure to pay state taxes.

Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill said in a statement, “we are in constant communication with our legal team for counsel and determining any action that may be necessary.”

In a statement to its citizens, The Osage Nation said, “this change was made without any consultation with the Osage Nation and without notice. The Osage Nation is working on multiple fronts to address the issue.”

It’s unclear what will happen next. But the newspaper reports on a memo sent to troopers. The memo says to ticket Native drivers who use a tribal tag registered to a vehicle primarily parked outside their tribal nation’s boundaries.

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Robby Korth joined KOSU as its news director in November 2022.
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