Commercial Motor Vehicle Traffic in Indian Country

As Native American communities grow, commercial traffic is increasing in Indian country. Oil and natural gas drilling, logging, and tourism all bring large trucks and buses into Native communities. Many reservations have local commercial traffic as well (such as school buses) as well. In order to operate these vehicles and keep communities safe, special training and high safety standards are required for commercial drivers. Despite these higher standards, commercial driving accidents destroy countless lives and cost billions of dollars in damage each year. Accidents caused by commercial drivers are costly, and often fatal. They are also often preventable.

For many years, The National Judicial College has offered courses that address the issues judges face when adjudicating cases that involve commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) or commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs). These courses teach judges about the federal and state regulations that apply to commercial drivers and address common concerns with these types of cases.

Tribal judges face very different challenges than state and local judges with regard to jurisdiction, resources, and recognition of commercial driving violations. The National Judicial College is currently working to understand how tribal courts handle these types of cases, and what opportunities exist to provide more education to tribal judges about this topic.

On this page, you will find a number of additional resources that address some of the specific issues that tribal judges are likely to encounter in adjudicating these cases, based on what we have learned so far.

Do Tribal Courts Adjudicate CDL/CMV Cases?

  • Tribal law enforcement officers often waive cases to state or municipal courts and will send commercial drivers to those jurisdictions. We are currently working to learn more about how tribal law enforcement identifies commercial drivers, and how citations are handled if they do go to tribal court.
  • If a case comes before the tribal court, and the commercial driver’s license class is not indicated on the citation, tribal judges might not realize that a defendant is subject to additional regulations under federal law. We are currently working to learn more about how tribal judges learn whether a defendant in their court has a CDL.
  • If the driver is not a member of a tribal nation, it is unclear whether the tribal court would have personal or subject matter jurisdiction over the commercial driver/violation. We are currently working to learn more about when and if tribal courts would have jurisdiction over non-native commercial drivers.
    • Some tribes have entire departments dedicated to maintaining safe roads, while other tribes do not have a traffic code at all. Where tribal traffic codes exist, they may or may not address commercial violations. If no laws exist in the tribal code to treat CDL/CMV violations differently, tribal judges might not be able to address commercial violations in a manner commensurate with the added responsibility that this type of driving demands.
    • A lack of jurisdiction over non-Indians can complicate cases for courts that only handle traffic violations in criminal court. Special circumstances may exist where the driver concedes personal jurisdiction, such as when they have a commercial relationship with the tribe.

Tribal Judges’ Knowledge and Attitudes Regarding CDL Cases
Draft Model Tribal CMV/CDL Code

Researchers with The National Judicial College have been hard at work, trying to learn more about if and how CDL/CMV cases are addressed in tribal court. Please sign up for the listserve to receive additional information.