An Introduction into Public Law 280
By Dorothy Alther, Executive Director
If you are a California Native American chances are you have heard of Public Law 280 (PL 280) at some point in your life. But what does PL 280 really mean to you, to your tribes, and California tribal communities? The following is a short introduction and overview of PL 280. Please note that PL 280 is complex and reports, books, law review articles, and lengthy court opinions have been written on the topic.
Jurisdiction in California “Indian Country” Before PL 280. Prior to PL 280, the state’s criminal and civil jurisdiction in California Indian County was limited to cases where all the parties were non-Indians. For example, the state only prosecuted a crime committed in Indian Country where both the defendant and victim were non-Indians. In civil cases, the state only heard cases where the act occurred in Indian County if both the plaintiff and defendant were non-Indian.
Thus, prior to PL 280, crimes involving a Native American were prosecuted by the federal government and/or tribal government, depending on the nature of the crime and if the accused was a non-Indian. Civil cases arising in California Indian Country where one of the parties was a Native American would be heard in tribal court.
Confusing I know, but the main point to remember is that in California prior to the passage of PL 280, the state had very limited jurisdiction in Indian Country.
PL 280 Changed the Jurisdictional Scheme in California Indian Country. PL 280 was passed in 1953 and consists of two jurisdictional laws which grants state concurrent (shared)criminal and limited civil jurisdiction with the tribes in California, Nebraska, Oregon, Wisconsin and Minnesota (commonly referred to as the “mandatory states”) and Alaska was added in 1958.
Remember prior the PL 280, these mandatory states had no criminal or civil jurisdiction in Indian Country unless all parties were non-Indians. PL 280 changed the rules.
Under the criminal portion of PL 280, Congress removed two federal criminal jurisdictional statutes used by the federal government to prosecute crimes in Indian Country. This does not mean that there are no federal criminal laws applicable in California Indian Country, but PL 280 removed the two main federal statutes specific to crimes occurring in Indian Country. Now, crimes committed in California Indian Country are criminally prosecuted in state court. Tribes can also prosecute the same crime in tribal court if the defendant is Native American.
On the civil side of PL 280, state jurisdiction is more limited and was designed to open the door for Native Americans to file private civil suits in state court regardless of whether the defendant is a Native American or a non-Indian and the cause of action occurred in Indian Country.
PL 280 did not Change all the Rules. Although PL 280 opened the door for state concurrent jurisdiction in California Indian Country, it did not remove the door from its hinges, at least in the area of civil jurisdiction. Under the civil PL 280 statute, Congress lists a number of exceptions to state jurisdiction in Indian Country, for example there is no state jurisdiction: to tax trust lands, probate allotted lands, regulate or encumber trust lands, or determine the right to possess or ownership of trust land or property.
What PL 280 did not do:
- PL 280 did not “divest” (take away) tribes of their criminal and civil jurisdiction. Tribes can establish their own courts, have their tribal law enforcement and pass tribal laws enforceable on their reservations;
- PL 280 does not allow the state to impose its civil “regulatory” laws on the reservation (i.e. environmental laws, labor laws, building or fire codes, hunting and fishing regulations, and other laws designed to regulate land use); and
- PL 280 does not allow city or municipalities to impose their ordinances on the reservation.
CILS offers trainings and community presentations to tribes and tribal communities that take a deeper dive into the more complex and controversial issues of PL 280. CILS can provide direct representation to tribes and individuals in case involving state actions that are in violation of PL 280. CILS can also assist in preparing and advising tribes in developing tribal courts and codes while navigating the nuances of PL 280. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic our trainings and presentations are virtual but please contact to learn more about our services and trainings.
873 N. Main Street, Suite 120
Bishop, CA 93514
609 S. Escondido Boulevard
Escondido, CA 92025
324 F Street
Eureka, CA 95501
117 J Street, Suite 201
Sacramento, CA 95814
 As a frequent presenter on PL-280 many presentations can take well over three hours.
 Federal law “Indian Country” is as “reservations, allotments and dependent Indian communities.” 18 U.S.C. § 1151.
 18 U.S.C. § 1162 (Criminal) and 28 U.S.C. § 1360 (Civil)
 Major Crimes Act 18 U.S.C. § 1153 and Indian Country Crimes Act (aka General Crimes Act) 18 U.S.C. § 1152.
 In 1978 the Supreme Court held that tribes could not prosecute or punish non-Indians in tribal court. Oliphant v. Suquamish, 435 U.S. 191 (1978). However, Congress has passed recent legislation to allow tribes to prosecute non-Indians under some circumstances for the act of domestic violence.