ASCENSION PARISH, LA (WAFB) - How difficult is it to become a top-ranking police officer in the eyes of Louisiana? Typing up a short letter and signing it "chief of police" might work.
That's apparently all it took for a Slaughter man to have the Secretary of State's office deem him the chief of police of the Louisiana Band of Choctaw Indians. A single sentence typed on a fancy letterhead earned Billy Burkette a state identification card bearing his official title printed next to his name.
Burkette was apparently appointed to the "chief of police" office in 2014 by the Louisiana Band of Choctaw Indians, according to a letter signed by himself and one other tribe member.
The 9News Investigators obtained a copy of the letter which was signed by Burkette and the tribe's principal chief, Shaun Murphy, and filed with the state in 2014. It was stamped and dated by the Secretary of State's commissions department.
The ID card is at the crux of an incident in which Burkette was eventually arrested on a charge of impersonating a police officer.
Law enforcement officers arrested Burkette last Friday, taking him out of the Secretary of State's office in handcuffs when he went to qualify for a District 5 congressional seat he hopes to run for.
The impersonation charge stems from an incident on July 2 at the Office of Motor Vehicles in Clinton.
"According to what we were told by the employees at the OMV office in Clinton, Billy Burkette went in the office on a personal matter trying to get a driver's license for a member of his family," Chief Deputy Greg Phares of the East Feliciana Parish Sheriff's Office told WAFB.
The arrest warrant says when the clerk "refused to process a transaction," and Burkette "became upset."
At the time, he had a gun holstered on his waistband, which frightened people at the office, Phares said.
"At that point, he told them he was a commissioned police officer and he was on duty," Phares said.
No such thing
How Burkette managed to so easily get an official state document identifying himself as a law enforcement officer is still unclear.
"I have no idea how he got that or if it's legitimate," said Pat Arnould, the director of Louisiana Governor's Office of Indian Affairs. "He's misusing the idea."
Arnould, who is Native American, said Indian tribes in Louisiana are recognized by either the federal or state government. A federal recognition carries a lot of weight and requires a reservation or land that the tribe oversees, which is why a federally-recognized tribe will also have its own police department.
On the other hand, a tribe recognized only by the state, such as the Louisiana Band of Choctaw Indians, has no land and thus no need for a police force or police chief.
Arnould said there is no such thing as a police chief for the Louisiana Band of Choctaw Indians.
Hal Hutchinson, an actual chief of police with the federally recognized Chittimacha tribe, said there would be no reason why a state tribe would have or need a police force.
"I'm not aware of where they would enforce laws at," Hutchinson said. "If you don't have a reservation, I don't know where you would (or) what authority you would have over anybody."
Louisiana is home to four federally recognized tribes, located in Jena, Marksville, Elton, and Charenton. The Louisiana Band of Choctaw Indians is located in Ascension Parish.
The 9News Investigators went to the address registered for Burkette's tribe — 44335 Loop Rd. in Prairieville. The modest one-story home was overgrown with weeds and vegetation.
In a second letter filed with the Secretary of State in 2015, Burkette and Murphy changed the tribe's location to Ascension Parish and amended Burkette's ID card to say "police officer" instead of "chief of police."
"I could probably do the same thing and call myself that, chief of police for my tribe, which I'm not," Arnould said.
Officials with the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, which keeps a list of all the certified officers in Louisiana since 1976, said they had no records of either Burkette or Murphy having ever been police officers in Louisiana.
An identity defense
Attorneys Jennifer Motlow and Seth Dornier are representing Burkette and believe the ID card allowed Burkette to use the police chief title since it did not issue any restrictions.
"I don't want the public to think that this man is just roaming around not knowing what he's doing with, you know, acting as a police officer," Motlow said. "That's not at all what's happening, and he was issued this card and told he could get a badge and he was not issued any restrictions."
Dornier said Burkette's understanding was that the ID card was a valid law enforcement commission.
The Secretary of State's office issues commissions to all elected and appointed officials in Louisiana. But now the office is reviewing its practice of issuing those commissions.
East Feliciana Sheriff's Chief Deputy Greg Phares sent an email to the Secretary of State asking them to more thoroughly vet commissions and ID cards before handing them out.
Phares said that Interim Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin is already discussing changes.
"He indicated to me that he was immediately going to start vetting those very carefully," Phares said. "I believe he had spoken to the sheriff's association on the matter and that he was going to have his legal team research where he could just stop issuing them completely but in the meantime, they were going to very carefully vet those."
In the meantime, to avoid any confusion, the Louisiana State Police sent out an advisory to all law enforcement this week making it clear Burkette is not an officer.
Burkette's lawyers said the tribe has been in the process of trying to get federal recognition since 2014 and one of the requirements is to have a law enforcement division. That's why he was appointed chief, they said.
"Possibly there's a misunderstanding," Motlow said. "Mr. Burkette never intended to put himself out unlawfully as a police officer or a chief of police."