Justia Native American Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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Craig Morrison and Amanda Walker brought Walker’s three-year-old son, R.T., to the emergency room and told doctors that R.T. had jumped off his bed and hit his head on his scooter. After examining R.T., doctors discovered bruising across most of R.T.’s body - injuries the doctors determined did not line up with Morrison’s and Walker’s story. The doctors contacted the police, who initiated a child abuse investigation, ultimately leading to a grand jury indictment of Morrison for two counts of child abuse, under the Assimilated Crimes Act, and of Walker for two counts of enabling child abuse, under the Assimilated Crimes Act. They were tried in a joint trial and the jury returned guilty verdicts on all four counts. In separate sentencing proceedings, the district court granted the Government’s motions for upward variances from United States Sentencing Guidelines sentences for both Morrison and Walker. Morrison and Walker filed separate appeals, collectively raising ten challenges to their convictions and sentences. Because Morrison and Walker were tried in one trial, and each joined several of the other’s arguments on appeal. Determining none of their arguments were meritorious, the Tenth Circuit affirmed Morrison’s and Walker’s convictions and sentences. View "United States v. Walker" on Justia Law

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Defendant Kyle Sago appealed murder convictions committed in Indian country and causing death by use of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence (namely, first- or second-degree murder). The jury was instructed on first-degree murder, second-degree murder, and self-defense. On appeal Sago argued the district court plainly erred in providing model jury instructions on first- and second-degree murder that inadequately defined the required element of malice. Specifically, he argued the instructions omitted the mitigation defense referred to as “imperfect self-defense:” the instructions were defective in that they failed to inform the jury that it could not find that Sago acted with malice unless it found that he was not acting in the sincere belief (even if the belief was unreasonable) that the use of deadly force was necessary. The Tenth Circuit affirmed: a mitigating circumstance instruction negates the malice element of first- and second-degree murder and must be accompanied by a lesser-included-offense instruction to inform the jury of the offense on which it could convict the defendant in light of the mitigating circumstance. And here, Sago did not request a relevant lesser-included-offense instruction for involuntary manslaughter. Therefore, the trial court did not err in declining to instruct on the mitigating circumstance. View "United States v. Sago" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Isaiah Redbird, a member of the Kiowa Nation, was convicted by jury of first-degree murder and assault resulting in serious bodily injury. On appeal. he argued the district court improperly admitted character evidence about his propensity for violence under Federal Rule of Evidence 404(a)(2)(B). The Tenth Circuit found Redbird did not raise that specific objection at trial. Because Redbird did not argue plain error on appeal, the Tenth Circuit concluded he waived his evidentiary challenge and therefore affirm his convictions. View "United States v. Redbird" on Justia Law

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Plaintiff-appellant Justin Hooper and the City of Tulsa disputed whether the Curtis Act, 30 Stat. 495 (1898), granted Tulsa jurisdiction over municipal violations committed by all Tulsa’s inhabitants, including Indians, in Indian country. Tulsa issued a traffic citation to Hooper, an Indian and member of the Choctaw Nation, and he paid a $150 fine for the ticket in Tulsa’s Municipal Criminal Court. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, Hooper filed an application for post-conviction relief, arguing the municipal court lacked jurisdiction over his offense because it was a crime committed by an Indian in Indian country. Tulsa countered that it had jurisdiction over municipal violations committed by its Indian inhabitants stemming from Section 14 of the Curtis Act. The municipal court agreed with Tulsa and denied Hooper’s application. Hooper then sought relief in federal court—filing a complaint: (1) appealing the denial of his application for post-conviction relief; and (2) seeking a declaratory judgment that Section 14 was inapplicable to Tulsa today. Tulsa moved to dismiss. The district court granted the motion to dismiss Hooper’s declaratory judgment claim, agreeing with Tulsa that Congress granted the city jurisdiction over municipal violations by all its inhabitants, including Indians, through Section 14. Based on this determination, the district court dismissed Hooper’s appeal of the municipal court’s denial of his petition for post-conviction relief as moot. Hooper appealed. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding that the federal district court erred in dismissing Hooper's declaratory judgment claim because even if the Curtis Act was never repealed, it was no longer applicable to Tulsa. The Court also agreed with Hooper that the district court erred in dismissing his appeal of the municipal court decision as moot based on its analysis of Section 14, but the Court determined the district court lacked jurisdiction over Hooper’s appeal from the municipal court. View "Hooper v. The City of Tulsa" on Justia Law

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Defendant was convicted by a jury of conspiracy to distribute 500 grams or more of a substance containing methamphetamine, possession of a firearm as a convicted felon, and obstruction of justice. On appeal, Defendant challenged several district court decisions that span from indictment through sentencing.   The Eighth Circuit affirmed. The court explained that because both the stop and the search of the Pontiac were supported by probable cause, the district court did not err in denying Defendant’s suppression motion. Moreover, Defendant offered nothing to suggest the government violated that order by making use of the suppressed documents or information gleaned from them at trial. Accordingly, the court discerned no abuse of discretion in the remedy crafted by the district court. The court explained that under the facts of this case, Defendant has failed to show that Section 1503(a) was unconstitutionally vague as applied to him.   Further, the court explained that the government also presented evidence that Defendant had knowledge of the firearm. The gun was recovered from inside a red drawstring bag in the Pontiac, and surveillance footage showed Defendant leaving a Walmart carrying the same distinctive red bag one hour before the Pontiac was stopped. Finally, the government presented evidence that Defendant, on occasion, traded methamphetamine for guns. Under these facts, a jury could conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Milk knowingly possessed the firearm as charged. View "United States v. Wicahpe Milk" on Justia Law

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In 2011, defendant-appellant Joshua Slinkard pleaded guilty in Oklahoma state court to child sex abuse, lewd molestation, and possession of child pornography. The state court sentenced him to 30 years in prison. But in May 2021 the State vacated Slinkard’s conviction for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, pursuant to the United States Supreme Court’s decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, 140 S. Ct. 2452 (2020). Slinkard was then indicted in federal district court on two counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a minor in Indian country, and one count of possession of child pornography. He pleaded guilty on all three counts without the benefit of a plea bargain. After adopting the factual recitations of the PSR and confirming Slinkard’s advisory guideline sentence, the district court recited the sentencing factors set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) and offered defense counsel the opportunity to be heard on the application of those factors in Slinkard’s case. Defense counsel asked the court to consider an oral motion for a downward variance based in part on Slinkard having already served 12 years in state prison. The government requested a life sentence. The court stated it would not vary from the advisory guideline for sentencing. The court then asked Slinkard if he wished to make a statement, but he declined. After the government made a statement on behalf of the victim, the court imposed a sentence of two terms of life in prison and one term of 240 months, all to run concurrently. In his single issue on appeal, Slinkard contended the district court plainly erred when it conclusively announced his sentence before permitting him to allocute. To this, the Tenth Circuit concurred: the court’s pre-allocution statement was a definitive announcement of sentence, in violation of Fed. R. Crim. P. 32(i)(4)(A)(ii) and Tenth Circuit precedent. The sentence was vacated and the matter remanded for resentencing. View "United States v. Slinkard" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Conner Polk appealed his four-year prison sentence under the Assimilative Crimes Act (ACA), 18 U.S.C. § 13, for committing a state-law offense on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma. Polk argued the district court should have considered imposing a shorter prison term under an Oklahoma statute that permitted a departure from a mandatory minimum sentence in certain circumstances. Because this state law conflicted with federal sentencing policy, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded the district court properly declined to apply it. The Court, therefore, affirmed Polk’s sentence. View "United States v. Polk" on Justia 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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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