This Is Not the USA

He thought he was just doing his job and playing by the rules. Then he learned that the rules are very different in the sovereign nation of the Miccosukee.

The investigator took Lieutenant O'Neill's words to be a threat. "I have no intention of ever going back out there and risk getting caught in his little world," Mueller says. "There was simply no reason for him to come after me the way he did." Following that encounter, Mueller says he had no doubt Negron was telling the truth. Attorney Kenneth Weisman was furious when he learned that his investigator had been threatened in such a manner. "This P.K. O'Neill is one nasty, unethical sleazeball," he says. "And you can quote me on that."

(O'Neill, like all sixteen members of the tribal police force, is not an Indian. This past December he was promoted to captain and is now second-in-command. He refuses to discuss the Mueller incident or Negron's case generally. The Osceolas also refused to comment.)

The next day, Saturday, November 5, Negron called the Miccosukee Police Department to arrange a time when he could retrieve his tow truck, which is his means to a livelihood; without it he has no business and no income. (Custom-built to his specifications, the truck is designed so the special rear hooking device can be operated from inside the cab. Negron can back up, snag a car, and drive off with it in less than 30 seconds A all without having to step outside. In the sometimes dangerous world of repossessions, such equipment is essential.) In addition to the truck, the tribal police had confiscated other items necessary for his work. Besides his two weapons, his truck had carried his house keys and driver's license, a set of walkie-talkies, his cell phone, his repossessor's license, and a box of paperwork on more than a dozen pending jobs. Without that paperwork or his repossessor's license, he couldn't work even if he rented another tow truck. (Police also refused to return Bythwood's property: keys to his car and house.)

When he called the tribal police, Negron was transferred to O'Neill, who apparently was still fuming over his encounter with Mueller the night before. "You're not getting the truck back," O'Neill stated, "not after you sent that bonehead Mueller out here. We're filing forfeiture on it."

The Miccosukees have adopted Florida's forfeiture laws, which allow police agencies to seize property such as cars, boats, airplanes, and houses if they believe the property was used in the commission of a felony. Forfeiture proceedings take place independent of criminal trials, and a defendant doesn't have to be convicted of a crime before his property can be confiscated. In fact, a person can be found innocent of the felony that prompted the forfeiture case and still lose his property. The laws originally were designed to be used in drug cases, but in this instance, tribal police officials claimed that Negron had committed the felony of armed trespassing and that as a result the truck was now rightfully the property of the Miccosukee Indians.

Even before Negron could fully comprehend the catastrophic financial effect of losing his tow truck and its contents, Lieutenant O'Neill had an offer for him: The tribe would be willing to sell him his truck for $5000. "You want me to give you $5000 for my own truck?" Negron repeated in disbelief. O'Neill responded by saying that if he couldn't come up with $5000, he should make a counteroffer. Says Negron: "That's when I realized what this was all about A money."

In the four months since the arrest of Bythwood and Negron, the case has drawn the attention of politicians and high-profile attorneys; it has pitted the Miccosukees' assertions of sovereignty against Miami businessmen who have little recourse in recovering property from the reservation, and it has stirred up a hot cauldron of emotions.

"We are all Americans and we are all supposed to be governed by the same laws," says Joseph Taylor, chairman of the state's advisory council on private investigators and recovery agents. "I try to make things real simple: If a guy signs a contract saying he is going to pay and he doesn't pay, then I should have the right to get that car back." Taylor says he has been aware of Negron's case for several months, but there has been little he could do to help. "It's a real tragic situation," he offers. "And I think Mr. Negron has suffered immeasurably and unjustifiably just for trying to do his job. The very most they should have done was escort him off the property and tell him not to come back. He's done nothing to deserve the treatment he's gotten."

Negron's case illustrates the peculiar situation in which non-Indians find themselves when they visit a reservation. Numerous courts throughout the nation have found that tribes like the Miccosukee, which have been recognized by Congress to be sovereign nations, enjoy nearly complete immunity from individuals seeking to file civil lawsuits in either state or federal court. (However, state and federal criminal statutes do apply on Indian reservations.) In Alaska, for instance, the state supreme court has ruled that an Indian tribe could not be sued by the family of a man who had been beaten to death by four tribal police officers. In Florida, the Fourth District Court of Appeals has ruled that the Seminole police department could not be sued in state court for wrongful arrest.

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