WASHINGTON ( Associated Press) – The Supreme Court ruled Monday that Native Americans prosecuted in some tribal courts could also be prosecuted in federal court based on the same incident, which could result in longer sentences.
The 6-3 ruling is in keeping with an earlier 1970s ruling that said the same thing about the more widely used type of tribal court.
The case before the judges involved a member of the Navajo Nation accused of rape, Merle Denezpi. He served nearly five months in prison after being charged with assault and battery in a court called the Court of Indian Crimes, which dealt exclusively with alleged Native American criminals.
Under federal law, Indian crime courts can generally impose a sentence of up to one year. The man was later tried in federal court and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He said the “double jeopardy” clause of the Constitution should have stayed the second prosecution.
But the judges disagreed.
“Denezpi’s single act constitutes a trial separately for violation of a tribal ordinance and a federal statute. Because the tribe and the federal government are separate sovereigns, they “are not the same crimes,” Justice Amy Connie Barrett observed in the court’s majority opinion. written for. “Denezhpi’s second prosecution therefore did not violate the double jeopardy clause.”
The Biden administration had argued for that result as did several states, stating that bypassing federal indictments in similar cases could allow defendants to avoid harsher punishment.
Cases before judges involve a tribal court system that has become increasingly rare over the past century. Indian Criminal Courts were created in the late 1800s during a period when the federal government’s policy toward Native Americans was to encourage assimilation. Prosecutors are federal officials who are accountable to federal officials, not tribal officials.
Federal policy toward Native Americans shifted in the mid-1930s, however, to emphasize a greater respect for the tribes’ native ways. As part of that, the government has encouraged tribes to create their own tribal courts, and the number of courts for Indian crimes has steadily decreased. Today there are five Regional Courts of Indian Crimes that serve 16 tribes in Colorado, Oklahoma, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. They are generally tribes with a small number of members or limited resources. There are more than 570 federally recognized tribes nationwide.
The Court held in 1978 that the Double Jawpardy Clause does not prevent the federal government from prosecuting a Native person in federal court after a trial in a tribal court, so this time the only question for the Court was whether Indian courts had The rules for this should be different. Crime.
In July 2017, Denezpi traveled with a female member of the Navajo Nation to Tovac, Colorado, which is a part of the Ute Mountains Ute Reservation. While Denezpi raped the woman.
Among other things, Denezpi was first charged with assault and battery in an Indian crimes court. He eventually agreed to a so-called Alford plea in the case, not admitting guilt, but admitting that prosecutors had sufficient evidence that he would be convicted at trial. He was sentenced to time, 140 days in prison. His prosecution in federal court followed.