Inyo County v. Paiute-Shoshone Indians

PETITIONER: Inyo County, California
RESPONDENT: Paiute-Shoshone Indians
LOCATION: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 02-281
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 538 US 701 (2003)
ARGUED: Mar 31, 2003
DECIDED: May 19, 2003

Barbara B. McDowell - Department of Justice, argued the cause, as amicus curiae, supporting the petitioners in part and the respondents in part
John D. Kirby - Argued the cause for the petitioners
Reid Peyton Chambers - Argued the cause for the respondents

Facts of the case

During an investigation of welfare fraud, the Inyo County Sheriff's office requested personnel files from a casino owned by the Paiute-Shoshone Indian tribe. When the request was denied, the Sheriff's office obtained a warrant to search for the records at the casino. After the search, the tribe sued, claiming that it was a violation of their sovereign immunity. The district court ruled for Inyo County; a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel reversed, ruling for the Paiute-Shoshone tribe.


Does a federally recognized tribe qualify as a "person" who may sue under 42 USC section 1983? Does a tribe's suit qualify for federal-court jurisdiction because it arises under some federal law other than section 1983?

Media for Inyo County v. Paiute-Shoshone Indians

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 31, 2003 in Inyo County v. Paiute-Shoshone Indians

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 19, 2003 in Inyo County v. Paiute-Shoshone Indians

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 02-281, Inyo County, California versus Paiute-Shoshone Indians will be announced by Justice Ginsburg.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

This case stems from a California County's Investigation of three members of a native American tribe for alleged welfare fraud.

The four suspects were on the payroll of a tribe-run casino.

In pursuit of the investigation, the County sought access to the casino's employment records.

The Tribe refused the county's request for access explaining that it's privacy policy prohibited release of payroll records without the employee's consent.

On showing probable cause, the County then obtained and executed a State Court warrant that authorize search of the casino for the requested employment records.

To avoid further searches of a similar kind, the Tribe sued the County in Federal Court asserting federally protected sovereign immunity from State Court processes.

The Tribe sought money damages and other relief under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, a federal statute that permits persons within the jurisdiction of the United States to sue in Federal or State Court for alleged deprivations of federally protected rights.

The Tribe lost in the District Court but prevailed in the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Our review of the Court of Appeals' judgment centers on the question whether the Tribe qualifies as a person entitled to sue under 1983.

The parties agree and we assume that a native American Tribe, like a State of the Union is not a person subject to sue under 1983.

We hold that in the circumstances this case presents, the tribe fails to qualify as a claimant, a person authorized to sue on the 1983.

Qualification of a sovereign as a person who may maintain a claim for relief, we have explained in other context depends not upon their analysis of the word "person" but on the legislative environment in which the word appears.

There is in this case, no allegation that the County lacked probable cause to search the casino's employment records or that the warrant executed by the County was otherwise defective.

It is only by virtue of the Tribe's sovereign status that it claims immunity from the County's processes.

Section 1983 was designed to secure private rights against Government encroachment.

Thus, the County acknowledges a tribal member complaining of an alleged unlawful search would be a person qualify to sue under 1983, but 1983 was not designed to advance a sovereign's prerogative to withhold evidence relevant in a criminal investigation.

Accordingly, we hold that the Tribe may not sue under 1983 to vindicate the sovereign right it here claims.

In addition to 1983, the Tribe invokes the federal common law of Indian affairs, but the Tribe has not explained in the lower courts in this case have not carefully considered the key question, just what prescriptions of federal common law, if any, enable a Tribe to seek declaratory and injunctive relief establishing its sovereign right to be free from State criminal processes.

We therefore remand the case for resolution of that jurisdictional question.

Justice Stevens has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.