Change is Coming For Victims of Domestic Violence On American Indian Reservations

Sexual and domestic violence in Indian Country continues to be a crisis, with grave law enforcement challenges.   There is progress, however. I recently published an article in the A.B.A. Criminal Justice magazine about the changes made in federal law to help Indian tribes address the problem. You can read the entire article here. Here is the section of the article detailing the Violence Against Women legal changes:

In 2013, President Obama signed into law the re-authorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a federal statute that addresses domestic violence and other crimes against women. (Pub. L. No. 113-4, 127 Stat. 54 (2013).) When originally enacted in 1994, VAWA created new federal offenses and sanctions, provided training for federal, state, and local law enforcement and courts to address these crimes, and funded a variety of community services to
protect and support victims.

President Obama listens to Lisa Lyotte (Sicangu Lakota Ospaya tribe) who was raped and beaten, prior to signing the Tribal Law and Order Act on July 29, 2010. PHOTO: UPI/Kevin Dietsch

Most significantly, the amended version of VAWA recognizes that tribal courts have jurisdiction over criminal cases brought by tribes against nonmembers, including non-Indians, that arise under VAWA. Significantly, this is the first time since the Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe that Congress recognized tribal courts’ criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians. (435 U.S. 191 (1978).) This change in the law represents a major change for native communities and especially native women. Native American and Alaska Native women experience sexual violence at a rate two and a half times higher than other women in the United States. (See NAT’L INST. OF JUSTICE, U.S. DEP’T OF JUSTICE, PUBLIC LAW 280 AND LAW ENFORCEMENT IN INDIAN COUNTRY—RESEARCH PRIORITIES (2005).)

The special domestic violence criminal jurisdiction recognized under the VAWA
reauthorization not only provides an additional tool to address violence in Indian country, but also strengthens tribal courts and tribal sovereignty. Congress’s recognition of tribal criminal jurisdiction comes with limitations and places obligations on tribes. Tribes wishing to take advantage of VAWA’s jurisdictional provisions may need to amend tribal law, and hire new
judges and public defenders. Further, there remain significant limitations on who can be prosecuted in tribal courts. VAWA pilot programs and prosecutions of non-Indians in domestic violence cases have commenced in select tribal courts in the following states: Arizona, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, and Washington, and it is extremely likely that many more will follow.

Cherokee Billboard

Here is a summary of the new law’s requirements and limitations:

Limitations of the Enhanced Jurisdiction under VAWA 

Types of offenses. Under the amended statute, tribes can prosecute “domestic violence” or “dating violence” by a person who is or has been in a “dating or domestic relationship” with the victim. Tribes can also prosecute violations of protection orders that occur in Indian country as long as those protection orders were issued to prevent (1) violent or threatening acts, or (2) contact, communication, or physical proximity with or to the victim.
Types of defendants. Tribes can only prosecute VAWA cases against a non-Indian defendant if he or she has one of the following connections to the tribe’s reservation or lands: (1) resides in Indian country, (2) is employed in Indian country, or (3) is the spouse, intimate partner, or dating partner of an Indian living in Indian country or a tribal member. The last category includes former spouses, individuals who share a child in common, and individuals in
social relationships of a romantic or intimate nature. With one very limited exception, this new jurisdiction does not apply to tribes in Alaska, who under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) are governed by 12 regional corporations. (See 43 U.S.C. §§ 1601 et seq.) These new jurisdictional rules also have very limited impact with nonrecognized tribes.

Types of victims

Tribes can only use the jurisdictional provisions of VAWA to prosecute crimes against Indian victims. This new law does not recognize tribal authority to prosecute non-Indians for violent acts against non-Indian victims.
Procedural safeguards. Tribes will need to guarantee that their criminal codes and rules of criminal procedure provide defendants with certain procedural safeguards. These include the right to a trial by an impartial jury of members of the community, from which non-Indians may not be excluded. Whenever a tribe intends to impose imprisonment, it must provide counsel/public defenders for indigent defendants. It must guarantee that proceedings are presided
over by a law-trained judge. It must make publicly available the tribal criminal statutes and rules of procedure, and the criminal proceedings must be recorded. Defendants ordered detained under VAWA must be informed by the tribal court of their right to file federal habeas corpus petitions. Tribes must comply with all provisions of the Indian Civil Rights Act (ICRA) and guarantee “all other rights whose protection is necessary under the Constitution of the United States” in order to exercise this criminal jurisdiction. (See 25 U.S.C. §§ 1302, 1304.) It has not yet been established precisely what “other rights” this refers to. The guarantee of these fundamental rights is something which may very well end up becoming the topic of future defense challenges and litigation.

Pilot programs

As a result of the new federal legislation, in February 2013 the Justice Department announced a pilot program with three initial tribes, giving them jurisdiction over non-Indians in domestic violence cases on their reservations. Those tribes were the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, and the Umatilla Tribes of Oregon. As of February 20, 2014, the tribal courts in those three jurisdictions began to exert their newly
enhanced jurisdiction. In 2015, two additional tribes were approved to begin exercising special domestic violence jurisdiction as part of the pilot program: the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation of Montana and the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate of the Lake Traverse Reservation of North and South Dakota.

Since 2015

After 2015, another 10 began to exercise the special domestic violence jurisdiction: Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians of Michigan, Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina, Muscogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma, Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana, Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas, Kickapoo Tribe  of Oklahoma, Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi of Michigan, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe of North Dakota, and Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Michigan. The 10 tribal courts are at varying stages of exercising the approved jurisdiction, but it is likely they will all begin prosecuting cases shortly, if they have not already done so. It is extremely likely that many more tribes will soon adopt the enhanced VAWA domestic violence jurisdiction.

For more:

Practicing Indian Law in Federal, State, and Tribal Criminal Courts and an Update on Recent Expansion of Criminal Jurisdiction Over Non-Indians

Criminal Justice, Volume 32, Number 4, Winter 2018

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