Justia Native American Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Constitutional Law
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Petitioner-appellant Delila Pacheco was convicted in Oklahoma of first-degree child-abuse murder. She petitioned for relief to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, filing an application under 28 U.S.C. § 2254. While her application was pending, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided Murphy v. Royal, 875 F.3d 896 (10th Cir. 2017), holding that a large portion of the State of Oklahoma was “Indian country” for purposes of the Major Crimes Act, which provided for exclusive federal jurisdiction over certain enumerated crimes committed by Indians in “Indian country.” Pacheco, an Indian found to have committed a serious crime at a location since determined to be on an Indian reservation, sought to amend her application to assert a claim that the state courts lacked jurisdiction over the offense. The district court denied the request to amend on the ground that the new claim was time-barred. The Tenth Circuit granted a certificate of appealability (COA) on this issue. Pacheco argued on appeal: (1) that the time bar to her jurisdictional claim should be excused under the actual-innocence exception; and, alternatively, (2) that the statute of limitations reset when the Supreme Court declared the underlying law in McGirt v. Oklahoma, 140 S. Ct. 2452 (2020), rendering timely her request to amend. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court, finding Pacheco’s jurisdictional argument did not show actual innocence, and McGirt did not announce a new constitutional right. View "Pacheco v. El Habti" on Justia Law

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The Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation have a cross-deputization agreement with the State of Montana under which the Tribes have agreed to commission state police to act as tribal police where there is a gap between their respective criminal jurisdictions. Defendant challenges the validity of the cross-deputization agreement, arguing that the Tribes lack the inherent sovereign authority to enter into a cross-deputization agreement with the State of Montana.   The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Defendant’s motion to suppress evidence. The panel emphasized that the cross-deputization agreement deputizes state officers to enforce tribal law, not state law, and emphasized that Congress has expressly provided for the Tribes’ authority to enter into such compacts.   Defendant also argued that the Tribes explicitly conditioned the cross-deputization agreement on federal approval, which they did not receive. The panel did not read the agreement’s use of the word “approve” as giving the Bureau of Indian Affairs veto power over the agreement.   The panel wrote that even if the lack of a signature from the BIA representative on the 2003 amendment to the agreement impaired the validity of the amendment, it would not invalidate the trooper’s commissioned status. The panel wrote that the trooper’s failure to carry an identification card was plainly a violation of the agreement.  The panel noted, however, that none of the sovereign parties to the agreement appears to consider the violation sufficiently serious to seek any remedy for it. View "USA V. ERIC FOWLER" on Justia Law

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Father appealed the juvenile court’s order terminating his and Mother’s parental rights and finding that the child, J.R., was adoptable. The Second Appellate District conditionally reversed that order because the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS or the agency) violated Mother’s due process rights.The court explained that the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that “[n]o State shall . . . deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . . .” (U.S. Const., 14th Amend., Section 1.) Except in emergent circumstances, this provision guarantees reasonable notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard before the state may deprive a person of a protected liberty or property interest. Because parents have a fundamental liberty interest in the companionship, care, custody, and management of their children, the due process clause requires child welfare agencies to exercise reasonable diligence in attempting to locate and notify them of dependency proceedings.   The court explained that this case presents a textbook example of a due process violation. DCFS initiated dependency proceedings concerning J.R. on the ground that his father physically abused him. Even though Father told the agency at the outset of the proceedings that Mother resided in El Salvador, the record does not show that DCFS made any attempt to ascertain Mother’s location in that country. The court concluded that Father has standing to assert DCFS’s violation of Mother’s due process rights. View "In re J.R." on Justia 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