Justia Native American Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal 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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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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Castro-Huerta was convicted of child neglect in Oklahoma state court. The Supreme Court subsequently held that the Creek Nation’s eastern Oklahoma reservation was never properly disestablished and remained “Indian country.” Castro-Huerta then argued that the federal government had exclusive jurisdiction to prosecute him (a non-Indian) for a crime committed against his stepdaughter (Cherokee Indian) in Tulsa (Indian country). The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals vacated his conviction.The Supreme Court reversed. The federal government and the state have concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian country. States have jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed in Indian country unless preempted either under ordinary preemption principles, or when the exercise of state jurisdiction would unlawfully infringe on tribal self-government. Neither preempts state jurisdiction in this case.The General Crimes Act, 18 U.S.C. 1152, does not preempt state authority but simply “extend[s]” the federal laws applicable to federal enclaves to Indian country. The Act does not say that Indian country is equivalent to a federal enclave, that federal jurisdiction is exclusive in Indian country, or that state jurisdiction is preempted in Indian country. Public Law 280 affirmatively grants certain states broad jurisdiction to prosecute state-law offenses by or against Indians in Indian country, 18 U.S.C. 1162; 25 U.S.C. 1321, and does not otherwise preempt state jurisdiction.Employing a balancing test, the Court considered tribal, federal, and state interests to conclude that this exercise of state jurisdiction would not infringe on tribal self-government nor preclude an earlier or later federal prosecution. Oklahoma has a strong sovereign interest in ensuring public safety and criminal justice within its territory. Indian country is part of a state, not separate from it. View "Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta" 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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Fisher was charged with conspiracy to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine and two counts of possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine, 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1); 846. The government filed notice that Fisher was subject to an enhanced sentence based on his prior conviction for first-degree burglary under Minnesota law, 21 U.S.C. 841(b)(1)(A). Fisher pleaded guilty to one count of possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine but objected to the enhanced sentence and requested sentencing credit for the time he served in tribal jail for a tribal court conviction based on the same conduct.The district court overruled Fisher’s objection to the sentence enhancement and denied Fisher’s request to credit his time served in tribal jail, reasoning that it did not have the authority to impose a sentence below the mandatory minimum. The district court sentenced Fisher to 180 months’ imprisonment, the statutory minimum for a defendant with a “serious violent felony” conviction. The Eighth Circuit affirmed. While Minnesota’s statute is broader than the generic definition of burglary, it is divisible; applying the modified categorical approach, Fisher’s conviction for burglary with assault is a “serious violent felony.” Treating discharged and undischarged sentences differently does not violate the Due Process Clause. View "United States v. Fisher" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed Defendant's conviction entered upon his Alford plea to the charges of intimidation with a dangerous weapon with intent to injure, willful injury resulting in bodily injury, assault with a dangerous weapon, and driving while barred, holding that the district court had jurisdiction to enter the judgment.In 1948, Congress gave the State criminal jurisdiction over offenses committed by or against "Indians" on the Meskwaki Settlement, and in 2018, Congress took back that jurisdiction. In the instant case, Defendant entered an Alford plea to several charges. After Defendant violated his probation, the Tama County Attorney filed an application for entry of judgment on the counts for which Defendant had previously received deferred judgments. Before the court granted Defendant deferred judgments but before the county attorney sought entry of judgment on those counts Congress repealed the 1948 Act. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss the application for entry of judgment for lack of jurisdiction. The district court denied the motion. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that Congress's repeal of the state's jurisdiction did not affect criminal cases pending at the time of the repeal. View "State v. Cungtion" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the district court finding Defendant guilty of domestic abuse assault and criminal mischief in the fourth degree, holding that the district court had jurisdiction to enter the judgment.The conduct giving rise to the charges against Defendant occurred on the Meskwaki Settlement, and both Defendant and the victim were Indians for purposes of the relevant statutory schemes. In 2018, Congress took back the criminal jurisdiction it gave to the State of Iowa in 1948 over offenses committed by or against "Indians" on the Meskwaki Settlement. On appeal, Defendant argued that Congress's repeal of the 1948 Act divested the district court of jurisdiction to enter judgment. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that Congress's repeal of the State's jurisdiction did not affect criminal cases pending at the time of the repeal. View "State v. Bear" 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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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