Inyo County v. Paiute-Shoshone Indians of Bishop Community of Bishop Colony,
538 U.S. 701 (2003)

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No.02-281. Argued March 31, 2003-Decided May 19,2003

The Bishop Paiute Tribe in California chartered and wholly owns the Bishop Paiute Gaming Corporation, which operates and manages the Paiute Palace Casino (Casino), a tribal gaming operation. When the Inyo County District Attorney asked the Casino for the employment records of three Casino employees under investigation for welfare fraud, the Tribe responded that its privacy policy precluded release of the records without the employees' consent. The District Attorney, on showing probable cause, then obtained and executed a search warrant authorizing a search of the Casino for payroll records of the three employees. The District Attorney subsequently asked for the records of six other Casino employees. The Tribe reiterated its privacy policy, but offered to accept as evidence of consent a redacted copy of the last page of each employee's signed welfare application. The District Attorney refused the offer. To ward off any additional searches, the Tribe and its Gaming Corporation filed suit in Federal District Court against the District Attorney and the Sheriff, in their individual and official capacities, and Inyo County (County). Asserting federal-question jurisdiction under 28 U. S. C. §§ 1331, 1337, 1343(i)(3)(4), and the federal common law of Indian affairs, the Tribe sought injunctive and declaratory relief to vindicate its status as a sovereign immune from state processes under federal law, and to establish that state law was preempted to the extent that it purported to authorize seizure of tribal records. The Tribe also sought relief under 42 U. S. C. § 1983, including compensatory damages, alleging that the defendants violated the Tribe's and Gaming Corporation's Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights and the Tribe's right to self-government. The District Court, on defendants' motion, dismissed the Tribe's complaint, holding, inter alia, that tribal sovereign immunity did not categorically preclude the search and seizure of the Casino's personnel records. The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that execution of a search warrant against the Tribe interfered with "the right of reservation Indians to make their own laws and be ruled by them." Williams v. Lee, 358 U. S. 217, 220. Acknowledging a prior



decision in which it held that the right to tribal self-government is not protected by § 1983, the court concluded that, in this case, a § 1983 claim could be maintained because the Tribe sought protection from an unlawful search and seizure, a right secured by the Fourth Amendment and therefore within § 1983's compass.


1. The Tribe may not sue under § 1983 to vindicate the sovereign right it here claims. Section 1983 permits "citizen[s]" and "other personEs] within the jurisdiction" of the United States to seek legal and equitable relief from "person[s]" who, under color of state law, deprive them of federally protected rights. Although this case does not squarely present the question, the Court assumes that tribes, like States, are not subject to suit under § 1983. See Will v. Michigan Dept. of State Police, 491 U. S. 58. The issue pivotal here is whether a tribe qualifies as a claimant-a "person within the jurisdiction" of the United States-under § 1983. Qualification of a sovereign as a "person" who may maintain a particular claim for relief depends not "upon a bare analysis of the word 'person,'" Pfizer Inc. v. Government of India, 434 U. S. 308, 317, but on the "legislative environment" in which the word appears, Georgia v. Evans, 316 U. S. 159, 161. There is in this case no allegation that the County lacked probable cause or that the warrant was otherwise defective. It is only by virtue of the Tribe's asserted "sovereign" status that it claims immunity from the County's processes. Section 1983 was designed to secure private rights against government encroachment, see Will, 491 U. S., at 66, not to advance a sovereign's prerogative to withhold evidence relevant to a criminal investigation. For example, a tribal member complaining of a Fourth Amendment violation would be a "person" qualified to sue under § 1983. But, like other persons, that member would have no immunity from an appropriately executed search warrant based on probable cause. The Tribe, accordingly, may not sue under § 1983 to vindicate the sovereign right it here claims. Pp. 708-712.

2. The Tribe has not explained, and the trial and appellate courts have not clearly decided, what prescription of federal common law, if any, enables the Tribe to maintain an action for declaratory and injunctive relief establishing its sovereign right to be free from state criminal processes. This case is therefore remanded for focused consideration and resolution of that jurisdictional question. P. 712.

291 F.3d 549, vacated and remanded.

GINSBURG, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST,

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