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Court says Indian tribes can't be taxed for mining their lands

A United States Supreme Court decision on Monday rebuffed the state of Montana, which had sought $3 million in taxes from oil, gas, and minerals taken from beneath Indian lands under leases issued since 1938. The high court, in ruling 6 to 3 for the Blackfeet Indian tribe, said that the almost half-century-old congressional law disallows such taxation by any state. Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, and North Dakota had joined Montana in a suit seeking collection of the disputed taxes. Lawyers for those states said that more than $25 million in revenues were in question.

The Mineral Leasing Act of 1938 permits mineral leasing of Indian lands. But it doesn't specifically authorize state taxation.

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Writing for the court's majority, Associate Justice Lewis F. Powell said that the statute ``contains no explicit consent to state taxation.''

Justice Powell explained that ``nothing in either the text or legislative history of the 1938 act suggests that Congress intended to permit states to tax tribal royalty income generated by leases issued pursuant to that act.''

Meanwhile, in other action, the high court agreed to decide next term whether police need a court warrant to conduct an aerial search for marijuana growing in fenced-in residential yards.

The California case to be considered should be a key test of the 61-year-old ``open fields'' doctrine, which allows authorities to search an outdoor area.

Last year the Supreme Court bolstered this concept by ruling that police in Kentucky and Maine had acted lawfully when they disregarded fences and no-trespassing signs and entered private property to find patches of marijuana.

Those cases, however, involved remote fields. The new case involves a backyard in a residential area.

Following up an anonymous tip that a Santa Clara resident was growing marijuana in his yard, police were unable to survey the area because two six-foot-high fences blocked their view. They chartered an airplane and photographed a large patch of the illegal plants.

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Using this information, police obtained a search warrant to enter the backyard. A conviction was ultimately obtained from this evidence. But a California appeals court reversed this finding, stating that an individual could reasonably expect to enjoy privacy in a fenced yard.

After California's Supreme Court refused to further review the case, state Attorney General John K. Van de Kamp appealed to the US Supreme Court. His appeal says that ``a physically nonintrusive observation of a readily seen object in a fenced yard from aircraft in navigable airspace is not a search.'' Therefore, he contends, it requires no court warrant.

Mr. Van De Kamp insists that if the federal high court upholds the state court ruling, it would provide ``safe havens for the California marijuana industry, so long as it prunes its plants behind high fences.''

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