The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that Inyo County officials violated the Bishop Paiute Tribe's sovereignty when they used a search warrant to seize employee records from the Paiute Palace Casino.
Inyo County officials seized the records as part of a welfare fraud investigation. They argued they needed the payroll records to show that the three had been working at the same time they were collecting welfare benefits from the state of California.
As authority, they cited federal Public Law 280, which gives states jurisdiction over criminal and some civil offenses committed by or against Native Americans.
Tribal officials said their policy was that they would only release the records if the employees authorized it in writing. They also offered at one point to accept as evidence of employee consent a copy of the last page of the signed county welfare application which states that employment records of those seeking public assistance are subject to review by county officials.
The opinion says the district attorney rejected that offer.
According to the opinion, the DA and sheriff obtained a warrant from Inyo County Superior Court in March of 2000 and seized the records after using deadbolt cutters to remove locks from the facilities containing them.
"Despite the limited scope of the search warrant, the documents seized contained confidential information concerning 78 other tribal member casino employees who were not the subject of the warrant," the opinion says.
Those actions prompted the tribe to file suit against the county. The district court dismissed the suit saying tribal sovereignty didn't prohibit execution of the search warrant, that the county was not liable for the actions of the DA and sheriff and that the DA and sheriff were immune from liability for their conduct.
The Ninth Circuit Court disagreed.
"We find that the county and its agents violated the tribe's sovereign immunity when they obtained and executed a search warrant against the tribe and tribal property," the opinion states.
It adds that the DA and sheriff were acting as county officers at the time, subjecting the county to liability.
"Finally, we find that neither the district attorney nor the sheriff is entitled to qualified immunity because they violated clearly established law by executing a warrant outside of their jurisdiction," it states.
The opinion reinstates the lawsuit and opens the county as well as the sheriff and DA to possible damages for their actions.