What are Federal Offenses on an Indian Reservation?
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Dr. Nick Oberheiden
Indian nations within the United States enjoy a unique independence. Indian nations and their tribal inhabitants are sovereign nations with the ability to govern themselves – with a few exceptions. There are over 200 recognized Indian nations within the United States. These Indian nations have their own laws and their own courts. For most criminal offenses, Indian inhabitants on reservations are charged and prosecuted within the authority of their respective tribal governments. In certain cases, however, the United States federal government can have jurisdiction to prosecute Indian reservation inhabitants or prosecute individual crimes occurring on Indian reservations in U.S. federal courts.
There are two main statutory code provisions that allow federal jurisdiction on Indian reservations –
- Under 18 U.S.C. § 1152, all crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians on Indian reservations are subject to federal jurisdiction regardless of the seriousness of the underlying criminal offense.
- The second federal code provision is 18 U.S.C. § 1153. Under this federal code provision, crimes committed on Indian reservations are subject to federal prosecution when the offense is committed by, or against, a Native American. The crimes that invoke this code provision are: murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, maiming, incest, assault with intent to commit murder, assault with a dangerous weapon, assault resulting in serious bodily injury, an assault against an individual who has not attained the age of 16 years, arson, burglary, and robbery. This federal code provision is commonly referred to as The Major Crimes Act.
Federal code provision 18 U.S.C. § 1153 further clarifies that any offense not specifically listed is subject to jurisdiction of the tribal courts.
If criminal offenses are committed on an Indian reservation that are not tied to the reservation territory itself (i.e. the crime goes beyond the reservation) then the federal government has jurisdiction to prosecute these types of crimes. Examples of these types of crimes include:
If a Native American commits any of the above offenses, regardless of whether the offense occurred on tribal lands, the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction to prosecute the defendant in federal court. Often, tribal authorities will work together with federal authorities to investigate alleged offenses falling under federal jurisdiction.
Federal Cases Involving American Indians
- An American Indian tribal member living on a reservation in Wisconsin was prosecuted and convicted in federal court for engaging in human trafficking. According to court documents, the tribal member would recruit non-tribal women and girls to work at a dance club located on the reservation. Once the tribal member brought the women and girls to the dance club, he would brand them and not let them leave. The tribal member forced the women and girls to live on the reservation and would threaten them with violence if they tried to escape. The tribal member was sentenced to 21 years in prison.
- An American Indian tribal member who worked as a law enforcement office on his Indian reservation in Arizona was convicted in federal court of sexual assault. According to court documents, the tribal member sexually assaulted a 15-year-old female tribal member when she was in his custody on reservation land. Under the Major Crimes Act, the federal government assumed jurisdiction over the prosecution.
- Thirty-four members of the Apache tribe were charged in federal court for their alleged roles in a drug trafficking scheme. According to the indictments, the tribal members are alleged to have formed a methamphetamine lab and distribution network on reservation land. The trafficking is said to have involved both American Indians and non-Indians. Due to the nature of the offense and the fact that the offense transcended reservation lands, the federal government was able to assume jurisdiction.
Oberheiden P.C. Can Defend Charges That Occured on an Indian Reservation
If you are being investigated for federal charges for issues that occured on an Indian reservation, reach out to the attorneys of Oberheiden P.C. today.