Justia Native American Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
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This case arose from a long-running irrigation-water dispute between Plaintiff Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation and Defendant Gregory McKee, who was not a member of the Tribe. Defendant owned non-Indian fee land within the Ute reservation’s exterior boundaries and used water from two irrigation canals flowing through his property. Plaintiff claimed the water belonged to the United States in trust for the Tribe. Plaintiff sued Defendant in the Ute tribal court, alleging that Defendant had been diverting the Tribe’s water for years, and won. Plaintiff then petitioned the district court to recognize and enforce the tribal-court judgment. But the district court dismissed the case after holding that the tribal court lacked jurisdiction to enter its judgment. Because the Tenth Circuit also concluded the tribal court lacked jurisdiction over Plaintiff’s dispute with a nonmember of the Tribe arising on non-Indian fee lands, it affirmed. View "Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah v. McKee, et al." on Justia Law

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The Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation (“the Tribe”) temporarily banished Angelita Chegup, Tara Amboh, Mary Jenkins, and Lynda Kozlowicz (“the banished members”). The banished members did not challenge their temporary banishment in a tribal forum, but instead sought relief in federal court by filing a petition for habeas corpus. The banished members contended that, because they were excluded from the reservation by virtue of their banishment, they were “detained” within the meaning of the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 (“ICRA”). The district court disagreed and dismissed the suit without considering the Tribe’s alternative position: that the court could not consider the claims at all because the banished members failed to exhaust their tribal remedies. On appeal, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concurred with the district court: "Even though tribal exhaustion is non-jurisdictional, and courts may often choose between threshold grounds for denying relief, we think that under the unique circumstances of this case there was a right choice." Because the district court neither began its analysis with tribal exhaustion nor reached that issue in the alternative, the Tenth Circuit remanded for it to be decided in the first instance. View "Chegup, et al. v. Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah, et al." on Justia Law

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At issue in this appeal was a contract dispute between Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation (the Tribe) and Lynn Becker, a non-Indian. The contract concerned Becker’s work marketing and developing the Tribe’s mineral resources on the Ute reservation. Becker sued the Tribe in Utah state court for allegedly breaching the contract by failing to pay him a percentage of certain revenue the Tribe received from its mineral holdings. Later, the Tribe filed this lawsuit, challenging the state court’s subject-matter jurisdiction under federal law. The district court denied the Tribe’s motion for a preliminary injunction against the state-court proceedings, and the Tribe appealed. After its review, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, finding the Tribe was entitled to injunctive relief. The appellate court found the trial court’s factual findings established that Becker’s state-court claims arose on the reservation because no substantial part of the conduct supporting them occurred elsewhere. And because the claims arose on the reservation, the state court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction absent congressional authorization. Accordingly, under the particular circumstances of this appeal, the Tenth Circuit "close[d] this chapter in Becker’s dispute with the Tribe by ordering the district court to permanently enjoin the state-court proceedings." View "Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah, et al. v. Lawrence, et al." 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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These appeals stemmed from an Independent Contractor Agreement (the Agreement) entered into by the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation (the Tribe) and a non-Indian, Lynn Becker. Becker alleged the Tribe breached the Agreement and owed him a substantial amount of money under the terms of the Agreement. The Tribe disputed Becker’s allegations and asserted a host of defenses, including, in part, that the Agreement was void both because it was never approved by the Department of the Interior and because it purported to afford Becker an interest in Tribal trust property. The dispute between Becker and the Tribe over the Agreement spawned five separate lawsuits in three separate court systems. Before the Tenth Circuit were two appeals filed by the Tribe challenging interlocutory decisions issued by the district court in Becker’s most recent federal action, including a decision by the district court to preliminarily enjoin the Tribal Court proceedings and to preclude the Tribal Court’s orders from having preclusive effect in other proceedings. The Tenth Circuit concluded the tribal exhaustion rule required Becker’s federal lawsuit to be dismissed without prejudice. Consequently, the Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision preliminarily enjoining the parties from proceeding in the Tribal Court action and enjoining the Tribal Court’s orders having preclusive effect in other proceedings. The case was remanded to the district court with directions to dismiss Becker’s federal lawsuit without prejudice. View "Becker v. Ute Indian Tribe, et al." on Justia Law

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Charles Williams was a Colorado prisoner who practiced a Native American religion that used tobacco in sweat lodges. The ceremonies were possible because prison officials specified where inmates could use tobacco in religious services. In 2018, prison officials confiscated tobacco from a prisoner and suspected that it had come from Williams’s religious group. Prison officials responded with a 30-day ban on the use of tobacco for religious services. Weeks later, prison officials imposed a lockdown and modified operations, including an indefinite suspension of Native American religious services. Despite this suspension, prison officials allowed Christian and Islamic groups to continue their religious services because outside volunteers could provide supervision. The complaint implied that the suspension lasted at least nine days. Williams sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging in part that prison officials violated the First Amendment. The defendants moved to dismiss, asserting qualified immunity. The district court denied the motion on the ground that Williams’s allegations had overcome qualified immunity. The Tenth Circuit concurred: because Williams adequately alleged the violation of a clearly established constitutional right, he has overcome qualified immunity. So the denial of the defendants’ motion to dismiss was affirmed. View "Williams v. Borrego" on Justia Law

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Defendant-Appellant Eric Martinez appealed a district court’s imposition of a 27-month sentence for his burglary conviction under the Indian Major Crimes Act. In February 2016, Martinez and two accomplices burglarized a residence within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation in McKinley County, New Mexico. During the burglary, Martinez used a hammer to break a hole in the front door near the doorknob to gain entry to the residence. He and his accomplices took valuable items from the residence, including electronics, jewelry, and ceremonial shawls and robes. Martinez ultimately pled guilty to an “assimilated” New Mexico burglary offense under N.M. Stat. Ann. 30-16-3. At sentencing, Martinez argued that federal law permitted the district court to impose a conditional discharge, which would allow a term of probation without entry of a judgment of conviction -- a sentence possible had his case been adjudicated in New Mexico state court. He also objected to a two-level sentencing enhancement under U.S.S.G. 2B2.1(b)(4) for possessing a dangerous weapon on the basis that he did not use the hammer as a weapon during the burglary. The district court rejected these arguments. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed Martinez’s conviction and sentence. View "United States v. Martinez" on Justia Law

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Defendant Paddy Platero pleaded guilty to a charge of “[a]busive sexual contact” with a child under 12 in Indian country. In computing Defendant’s guideline sentencing range, the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico increased his base offense level on the ground that “the offense involved conduct described in 18 U.S.C. [section] 2241(a) or (b).” Defendant read the guideline as requiring a violation of section 2241(a) or (b). Section 2241 defined the offense of aggravated sexual abuse, not the lesser offense of abusive sexual contact of which Defendant was convicted. Defendant therefore appealed his sentence, contending that his base offense level should not have been increased. The Tenth Circuit rejected Defendant’s reading of Guideline 2A3.4(a)(1): “In context, the only reasonable interpretation of the guideline is that the reference to “conduct described in 18 U.S.C. 2241(a) or (b)” is a reference to the conduct described in [section] 2241 that distinguishes aggravated sexual abuse, which is governed by that section, from sexual abuse in general, which is governed by [section] 2242. Defendant’s interpretation of USSG 2A3.4(a)(1) must be avoided because it would eliminate any possible application of the provision, rendering it useless; and our interpretation finds support in both the history of 2A3.4(a)(1) and the statutory scheme, which sets penalties for the various types of abusive sexual contact set forth in section 2244 by reference to the conduct that distinguishes from one another the various types of sexual abuse prohibited by [sections] 2241, 2242, and 2243 – that is, by reference to the various means employed to commit sexual abuse.” View "United States v. Platero" on Justia Law

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Defendant Jessica Clark pleaded guilty to one count of child neglect in Indian Country. At sentencing, the district court concluded there were no sufficiently analogous Guidelines provision that applied to Clark's conviction, and consequently, it had to sentence her without reference to a specific Guidelines provision or advisory sentencing range. Clark received an 84-month term of imprisonment, to be followed by a five-year term of supervised release. Clark appealed, arguing the district court erred: (1) by not finding U.S.S.G. 2A2.3, the Sentencing Guidelines provision applicable to “Assault” offenses, was sufficiently analogous to her offense of conviction and therefore should have, pursuant to U.S.S.G. 2X5.1, been applied by the district court to determine both an offense level and in turn an advisory Guidelines sentencing range; and (2) the district court plainly erred by failing to adequately explain the reasons for the sentence it imposed. The Tenth Circuit rejected Clark's first argument, but agreed with the second: there was no sufficiently analogous Guidelines provision, but an explanation of the reasons for the sentence ultimately imposed was warranted. View "United States v. Clark" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Merle Denezpi, a Navajo tribal member, was arrested by Ute Mountain Ute tribal authorities and charged with violating the Tribe’s assault and battery laws, as well as two provisions of the Code of Federal Regulations on terroristic threats and false imprisonment. He subsequently entered an "Alford" plea to the assault and battery charge and was released from custody for time served. Six months later, Denezpi was indicted in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado for aggravated sexual assault. The court denied Denezpi’s motion to dismiss the indictment on double jeopardy grounds. At trial, the victim testified Denezpi had previously been incarcerated and implied that he had abused his ex-girlfriend. The court denied Denezpi’s motion to strike that testimony. The jury convicted him and he was sentenced to 360 months’ imprisonment. He appealed the denial of his motions to dismiss and to strike the victim’s testimony at trial. The Tenth Circuit affirmed as to both issues. The Court found that "the ''ultimate source' of the power undergirding' the CFR prosecution of Mr. Denezpi is the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s inherent sovereignty. Therefore, the subsequent prosecution of Mr. Denezpi in the federal district court did not violate the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition against Double Jeopardy." With respect to the victim's testimony, the Tenth Circuit concluded the testimony's admission was harmless: "the evidence against Mr. Denezpi is overwhelming. The SANE examination of [the victim]. revealed substantial injuries to her body, including bruising on her breasts, back, arms, and legs as well as injuries to her genitals. Mr. Denezpi’s DNA was found on [the victim's] genitalia. The SANE nurse testified at trial that [the victim's] injuries were 'consistent with a nonconsensual sexual assault.'" Accordingly, judgment was affirmed. View "United States v. Denezpi" on Justia Law