UA engineer vindicated in tribal roadblock case - Tucson News Now

UA engineer vindicated in tribal roadblock case

By Som Lisaius - email

TUCSON, AZ (KOLD) - Forty-year-old Terry Bressi is a pretty smart guy.

He's an engineer at the University of Arizona and one of his jobs is assessing threats presented to our planet by objects like meteors and comets.  That's what takes him to Kitt Peak on a regular basis where he maintains the telescopes and monitors the activity in our solar system.

But seven years ago, on his way back to Tucson from Kitt Peak, Bressi was stopped by law enforcement on State Route 86.  This happens to be on the Tohono O'odham reservation and tribal officers told him this was a sobriety checkpoint.

"I was cognizant of what my rights are, if you will, at such checkpoint operations," Bressi said Wednesday in an exclusive interview with KOLD News 13.  "The courts have provided very limited exceptions to the general rule that to stop people you need some sort of reasonable suspicion."

Since he'd done nothing wrong, Bressi didn't like the way officers were treating him.  So when he refused to hand over his driver's license, he was ordered to pull off to the side of the road and turn off his vehicle.

"Several officers put their hands on their guns, indicating that things were starting to escalate," Bressi said.  "At that point they opened up my door and physically removed me from the vehicle, put me down on the ground, handcuffed me and dragged me off to the side of the road."

Over the next four hours, Bressi remained in handcuffs at the side of the road.

Yesterday, the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals determined those tribal officers had no right or legal basis to detain Terry Bressi for such a period.

"Primarily one of the issues for the court is--that's a state highway."

That's Paul Gattone, a defense and civil rights attorney whose familiar with Bressi's case.

He says because these officers were initially enforcing tribal law--looking for Native American DUI offenders at the sobriety checkpoint--they had no right to hold Bressi when it was obvious he wasn't intoxicated.

Says Gattone, "They can only detain you long enough to determine if you are a tribal member and and if not--they have to release you unless there's any apparent violations of state law."

Again, in this situation Bressi had not been drinking, he says, and even an officer admitted that Bressi appeared to sober. 

He was detained, essentially, because he refused to hand over his identification.  Since he did nothing wrong--there's no law stating he had to.

Says Bressi, "I respect the tribal nation and its authority and I hope they can equally respect the rights of individuals who travel inside their boundaries."

The Tohono O'odham Nation responded today by saying the Nation is examining the opinion of the court and how it may or may not affect tribal policy relating to sobriety checkpoints.

In a written release, the Nation's Attorney General also said, "The court recognized the sovereign rights of tribes to investigate violations of tribal law on state rights-of-way running through reservations, and to detain non Indians, once identified, for clear violations of state law."

Again, clear violations of state law is the key phrase here.  In Terry Bressi's case--there was no such clear violation.

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