Justia Native American Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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Defendant appealed after a jury convicted him of abusive sexual contact of a minor. Defendant contends the evidence was insufficient to establish the offense occurred in Indian Country, that the district court erred by admitting uncharged conduct as propensity evidence, and that the use of acquitted conduct to increase his sentence violated his constitutional rights.The Eighth Circuit affirmed. The court explained Major Crimes Act gives the federal government exclusive jurisdiction over certain crimes committed by an Indian within Indian Country, including abusive sexual contact. Here, the deputy superintendent of the trust for the BIA’s Yankton Agency with nearly 32 years of experience, testified that the tract was part of the Yankton Sioux Reservation in 2006. Accordingly, the court held that it would not disturb the conviction because the deputy’s testimony provided a reasonable basis for the jury to find the offense occurred in Indian Country. Further, the court wrote that in affording great weight to the district court’s balancing, it found no abuse of discretion in admitting the evidence under Rules 413 and 414. View "United States v. Frank Sanchez" on Justia Law

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LuAnn Erickson appealed a district court order granting her motion to vacate its previous order recognizing a tribal court restraining order under N.D.R.Ct. 7.2, but concluding that the tribal court restraining order was entitled to full faith and credit under 18 U.S.C. § 2265. Erickson argued that the court erred in granting full faith and credit to the tribal court order, because the tribal court lacked personal and subject matter jurisdiction, and the tribal court failed to provide her reasonable notice and opportunity to be heard. Specifically she averred she was not properly served with the tribal court proceedings. The North Dakota Supreme Court found the district court record did not reflect Erickson was properly served with the tribal court proceedings under the Tribal Code. “Without proper service on Erickson, a hearing should not have been held, and a permanent protection order should not have issued.” Further, because the record demonstrated that Erickson was notified of the protection order proceedings after a permanent protection order was already entered, it follows that she was not afforded reasonable notice and opportunity to be heard to satisfy 18 U.S.C. § 2265(b)(2). “Although Erickson responded to Baker’s attorney’s email attaching exhibits, this email was sent to Erickson the day before the hearing. Further, the email did not contain any information that would have informed Erickson a hearing would be conducted the following day. We conclude this is insufficient to satisfy due process requirements.” Therefore, the district court erred in according full faith and credit to the tribal court restraining order. The district court order granting Erickson’s motion to vacate its previous order recognizing a tribal court restraining order was affirmed; however, insofar as the order granted full faith and credit to the tribal court restraining order, judgment was reversed. View "Baker v. Erickson" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant David Wells brutally assaulted his wife, V.W. A grand jury issued an indictment charging Wells with committing: (1) aggravated sexual abuse in “Indian country;” (2) assault with the intent to commit aggravated sexual abuse in Indian country; (3) assault resulting in serious bodily injury in Indian country; and (4) assault with a dangerous weapon in Indian country. After a petit jury convicted Wells on all four counts, the district court sentenced him to a lengthy term of incarceration. Wells appealed, challenging his convictions and sentence. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals determined none of Wells’s challenges to his conviction were meritorious. At sentencing, however, the district court erred in adjusting upward Wells’s total offense level on the basis Wells obstructed justice when he violated an order directing that he have no contact with V.W. The Tenth Circuit remanded the matter to the district court for the narrow purpose of vacating Wells’s sentence and conducting any further necessary proceeding with regard to the section 3C1.1 obstruction-of-justice adjustment. View "United States v. Wells" on Justia Law

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A 2014 act of Congress requires the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture to convey Oak Flat to a mining company. In exchange, the mining company was to convey a series of nearby plots of land to the United States (the “Land Exchange”).Plaintiff, a nonprofit organization advocating on behalf of Apache American Indians, sued the government, alleging that the Land Exchange violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), the Free Exercise Clause, and the 1852 Treaty of Santa Fe. The district court denied Plaintiff's request for a preliminary injunction and Plainitff appealed.On appeal, the Ninth Circuit held that, although the government's action was burdensome, it did not create a "substantial burden" under the RFRA. Next, the court held that the Plaintiff's Free-Exercise claim failed because the Land Exchange was neutral in that its object was not to infringe upon the Apache’s religious practices. Finally, the court held that Plaintiff could not establish that the Treaty of Santa Fe imposes an enforceable trust obligation on the United States. Thus, the court affirmed the district court’s order denying Plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction. View "APACHE STRONGHOLD V. USA" on Justia Law

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The Bureau of Indian Affairs filed a CFR court complaint against Denezpi, a member of the Navajo Nation, charging Denezpi with crimes alleged to have occurred within the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation: assault and battery, terroristic threats, and false imprisonment. CFR courts administer justice for Indian tribes where tribal courts have not been established. Denezpi pleaded guilty to assault and battery and was sentenced to time served. Months later, a federal grand jury indicted Denezpi for aggravated sexual abuse in Indian country, under the federal Major Crimes Act. Denezpi unsuccessfully argued that the Double Jeopardy Clause barred the consecutive prosecution and was sentenced to 360 months’ imprisonment.The Tenth Circuit and Supreme Court affirmed. The Double Jeopardy Clause does not bar successive prosecutions of distinct offenses arising from a single act, even if a single sovereign prosecutes them. Denezpi’s single act transgressed two laws: the Ute Mountain Ute Code’s assault and battery ordinance and the U.S. Code’s proscription of aggravated sexual abuse in Indian country. The two laws—defined by separate sovereigns—proscribe separate offenses, so Denezpi’s second prosecution did not place him in jeopardy again “for the same offence.” The Court did not address whether CFR prosecutors exercise tribal or federal authority because the Double Jeopardy Clause does not prohibit successive prosecutions by the same sovereign but only prohibits successive prosecutions “for the same offence.” The Double Jeopardy Clause does not ask who puts a person in jeopardy; it focuses on what the person is put in jeopardy for. View "Denezpi v. United States" on Justia Law

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The Ninth Circuit vacated the district court's orders denying defendants' motion to set aside a default judgment and awarding attorney fees to plaintiffs in an action concerning governance of Newtok Village, a federally recognized Alaskan Native tribe. The panel held that subject matter jurisdiction has not been shown where plaintiffs' claims as pleaded simply do not arise under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States. Nor is a substantial question of federal law present. The panel concluded that the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (ISDEAA), which confers jurisdiction on federal district courts to hear disputes regarding self-determination contracts, applies only to suits by Indian tribes or tribal organizations against the United States, and does not authorize an action by a tribe against tribal members. The panel explained that, as currently framed, this case does not arise under federal law and must therefore be dismissed without prejudice to permit amendment under a proper basis of federal jurisdiction. Furthermore, the district court did not have the power to award plaintiffs its attorney fees in the first instance. View "Newtok Village v. Patrick" on Justia Law

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Appellant Wilkie Bill Burtrum was found guilty of one count of aggravated sexual abuse and one count of sexual abuse in Indian country. Because Burtrum had previously been convicted of aggravated sexual abuse in Indian country, the district court sentenced him to mandatory life imprisonment on the first count pursuant to 18 U.S.C. 3559(e). The court sentenced him to 360 months on the second count. And it ordered Burtrum to pay the victim $5,850 in restitution for the equivalent of a year-and-a-half of weekly equine therapy sessions. Appealing, Burtrum argue his aggravated sexual abuse conviction was supported by insufficient evidence, his mandatory life sentence was unconstitutional, and a portion of the restitution award was not reasonably certain or supported by sufficient evidence. After review, the Tenth Circuit held: (1) the aggravated sexual abuse conviction was supported by sufficient evidence; (2) the mandatory life sentence was constitutional; and (3) the restitution award was a reasonably certain estimate supported by evidence. Therefore, judgment was affirmed. View "United States v. Burtrum" on Justia Law

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Plaintiffs, two American Indian tribes, business entities affiliated with the tribes, and individual tribe members, sued a number of non-tribal cardrooms alleging they were offering banked card games on non-tribal land, in violation of the exclusive right of Indian tribes to offer such games. Based on those allegations, plaintiffs asserted claims for public nuisance, unfair competition, declaratory and injunctive relief, and tortious interference with a contractual relationship and prospective economic advantage. The defendants demurred and, after two rounds of amendments to the complaint, the trial court sustained the third and final demurrer without leave to amend and entered judgment of dismissal. The court ruled that, as governmental entities, the Indian tribes and their affiliated business entities were not “persons” with standing to sue under the unfair competition law (UCL), and were not “private person[s]” with standing under the public nuisance statutes. The court further ruled the business entities and the individual tribe members failed to plead sufficient injury to themselves to establish standing to sue under the UCL or the public nuisance statutes. Although plaintiffs broadly framed the issue on appeal as whether they, as American Indians, had standing to redress their grievances in California state courts, the Court of Appeal determined it was much narrower: whether the complaint in this case adequately plead the asserted claims and contained allegations sufficient to establish the threshold issue of whether any of the named plaintiffs had standing to bring those claims. The Court agreed with the trial court’s conclusion that the complaint did not do so and, therefore, affirmed judgment in favor of the defendants. View "Rincon Band of Luiseno Mission Indians etc. v. Flynt" on Justia Law

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Gerald Magnant and John Davis were each charged with violating MCL 205.428(3) of the Michigan Tobacco Products Tax Act (the TPTA), for transporting 3,000 or more cigarettes without the transporter’s license required by MCL 205.423(1). Defendants were nonsupervisory employees of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC). Michigan State Police pulled over a KBIC-owned pickup truck for speeding. Davis was driving, and consented to a search of a utility trailer, representing to the trooper that it contained “supplies” and “chips.” The trailer actually contained 56 cases holding over 600,000 “Seneca” cigarettes marked with KBIC stamps but not with the Michigan Department of Treasury tax stamps required by the TPTA. Magnant was a passenger, and admitted he helped load the trailer. The parties stipulated that Davis, Magnant, and the KBIC were not licensed to transport tobacco products under the TPTA. Defendants jointly moved to dismiss the charges, arguing that the relevant statutes were unconstitutionally vague because they did not give individual employees, as opposed to businesses, adequate notice that they were subject to the TPTA licensing requirement for transporting cigarettes. A circuit court denied the motion, holding that the language of the TPTA provided adequate notice that an “individual” can be a “transporter” subject to the licensing requirement. The Michigan Supreme Court held that an individual acting as a “transporter” need not have specific awareness of the law that creates the licensing requirement; a conviction for violating MCL 205.428(3) must, at a minimum, be supported by a showing that the individual (1) knew he or she was transporting a regulated amount of cigarettes and (2) knew of facts that conferred “transporter” status upon him or her. In this case, however, the prosecution failed to present any evidence establishing or implying that defendants were aware of facts that conferred transporter status on them. Judgment was affirmed in part, reversed in part, and defendants' joint motion to quash a bindover decision was granted. View "Michigan v. Magant" on Justia Law

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A member of the Metlakatla Indian Community was convicted of several commercial fishing violations in State waters and fined $20,000. He appealed his conviction and sentence to the court of appeals, which asked the Alaska Supreme Court to take jurisdiction of the appeal because of the importance of the primary issue involved: whether the defendant’s aboriginal and treaty-based fishing rights exempted him from State commercial fishing regulations. The defendant also challenged several evidentiary rulings and the fairness of his sentence. Because the Supreme Court held the State had authority to regulate fishing in State waters in the interests of conservation regardless of the defendant’s claimed fishing rights, and because the Court concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion in its procedural rulings, the Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. The Court also affirmed the sentence as not clearly mistaken, except for one detail on which the parties agreed: the district court was mistaken to include a probationary term in the sentence. The case was remanded for modification of the judgments to correct that mistake. View "Scudero Jr. v. Alaska" on Justia Law