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FAQ: Answers to your questions about driving with tribal tags in Oklahoma

A sample tribal license plate issued by the Choctaw Nation.
Choctaw Nation
A sample tribal license plate issued by the Choctaw Nation.

For decades, no matter where drivers with tribal tags lived in Oklahoma, they’ve been good to register their vehicle with their tribal nation.

This was following a 1993 Supreme Court Ruling in Oklahoma Tax Commission v. Sac and Fox Nation.

The Supreme Court determined that state taxes levied upon tribal citizens who live and work within their reservation and motor vehicle registration fees, "on tribal members who live and garage their cars principally on tribal land and register those cars with the tribal nation" are not allowed.

But that appears to be changing.

As the Oklahoma Highway Patrol begins ticketing drivers with tribal tags who live outside their tribal nation’s boundaries, there are a lot of questions on the practice.

KOSU is looking to answer some frequently asked questions about tickets for tribal tags. We talked with attorney Joe Halloran.

He works with Jacobson Law Group, a national Indian law firm office out of Saint Paul, Minnesota. He also serves as special counsel for many tribal nations in Oklahoma, including the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma.

Can I get pulled over for driving with a tribal tag?


You cannot be pulled over randomly for having a tribal tag. Officers must have to have a basis to initiate the stop, like speeding or reckless driving. If you are pulled over for an infraction and your vehicle is registered at your address and that address is on tribal land, you are free from paying this ticket.

"A tribal tag on a state highway is not the basis for a stop. That it's my understanding from the state that the stop would have to be warranted under some other circumstance, be it a tail light out or some other speeding or some other infraction, at which point if a stop is made and probable cause for that other reason that the state is now taking the position that it will determine whether a tribal tag is, in their view, appropriate meaning that it's issued to a tribal member whose vehicle is garaged on the reservation of the origin of the tag," Halloran said.

In other words, you cannot be pulled over for driving on a public road.

What can I do if I get a ticket for not paying my property taxes to the state of Oklahoma for having a tribal tag?

The citation for tribal registration infraction is a civil matter. And it is a citation that may result in a fine.

“I think you're going to see what tribal members do with respect to these tags, and that is to litigate whether the state is properly enforcing the tribal tag against tribal members who are displaying fully paid up and valid tribal license tags,” Halloran told KOSU. “And that would be in the context of the same kind of a context in which you would challenge a speeding ticket or driving without a seatbelt or that kind of a civil infraction.

Drivers from three tribal nations will also not get a ticket based on their compacts with the state. Those would be the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations.

So does that mean someone challenge this ticket?

Yes. And it’s likely that a ticket will be challenged.

"I hope that you won't have to, because it's my view that the state's position in this regard was, I don't think, was well-founded for a couple of reasons," Halloran said. "The position was taken, essentially, a reversal of some nearly 30 years of practice by the state without so much as a phone call or any effort to consult and discuss the issue with any of the tribes in the state of Oklahoma."

“I just think that's bad governance.”

Could tribes flip this precedent? If the Oklahoma government demands that tribal citizens pay taxes to the state on their vehicle if it's garaged outside tribal boundaries, could tribes require people who live within their boundaries/service area (including non-citizens) to pay vehicle taxes to the tribe?

“The simple answer is yes,” Halloran said.

But the reality is far more complicated. There would be political blowback and consequences for tribal nations and the state if something like this were to happen.

“It’s the kind of back and forth that I think is better done by tribal consultation with the state to vet these matters rather than a tit-for-tat enforcement by each of the sovereigns,” Halloran said.

If I've had a tribal tag for 10 years, can the state charge me back taxes for all of those years?

It's unclear.

"I know that the manner in which tag citations typically come up is for either a failure to secure a state tag for, typically it is for the current year," Halloran said.

However, nothing about what’s happening is typical. So it’s difficult to say what the state might do.

Is it driving a vehicle with a tribal tag outside tribal boundaries, or just having the vehicle registered to an address that's outside the boundaries?

No, that is not the infraction that's being cited. The infraction that is being cited by the state is where an officer stops a driver for an unrelated matter and determines that their tribal tag, that their resident, their registered residence is not within the sovereign territory of their tribe. That's when a citation is issued.

"So simply driving down the highway with a tribal tag when you're in Tulsa is not a sustainable offense at the time," Halloran said. "It would be virtually impossible for an officer without probable cause on another matter to determine whether the driver in front of him lives in Tulsa or lives in Miami, Oklahoma."

"Friends of mine in the Indian community know what it means to drive while Indian. And that is a risk that tribal people who have displayed tribal plates for decades, regardless of the state, can testify to that."

Why has this not been resolved? The Supreme Court's decision came out in 1993? Why haven't tribal nations and the Department of Public Safety worked to resolve this issue?

The simple answer is: they were supposed to. In 2011, the legislature passed a state law known as the Motor Vehicle Ownership and Registration Information - Intergovernmental Cooperative Agreement.

That law directed the commissioner of public safety to consult and develop a protocol for dealing with this very issue.

“But the problem is, that no outreach ever happened,” Halloran said. “Tribes continued to conduct themselves as they had for years. "So I think there's an infrastructure in place for the parties to meet and confer and consult on an appropriate protocol. I think the statutory authority is there."

The law states that, "In an effort to improve the public safety of all citizens of this state, a more uniform and expeditious method of obtaining ownership and registration information of all motor vehicles operating on the roads and highways of this state is required."

"The way the state didn't reach out to the tribes to develop the intergovernmental coordination,” Halloran said. “I can't tell you why that occurred. But I can say that simply changing a policy without any consultation was not the appropriate step. I don't think it was in step envisioned by statute, and it's not a step that results in meaningful inter-sovereign dialogue."

KOSU's Graycen Wheeler, Kateleigh Mills and Rachel Hubbard contributed to this story.

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Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
Robby Korth joined KOSU as its news director in November 2022.
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