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Associated Press , Published March 07 2013

Federal bill signed into law gives tribes new authority over non-Indians

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – American Indian tribes have tried everything from banishment to charging criminal acts as civil offenses to deal with non-Indians who commit crimes on reservations.

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that tribal courts lack criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians, tribes have had to get creative in trying to hold that population accountable. They acknowledge, though, that those approaches aren’t much of a deterrent, and say most crimes committed by non-Indians on tribal land go unpunished.

Tribal leaders are hoping that will change, at least in part, with a federal bill signed into law Thursday. The measure gives tribes the authority to prosecute non-Indians for a set of crimes limited to domestic violence and violations of protection orders.

Implementation of the Violence Against Women Act will take time as tribes amend their legal codes and ensure defendants receive the same rights offered in state and federal courts. But proponents say it’s a huge step forward in the face of high rates of domestic violence with no prosecution.

“For a tribal nation, it’s just absurd that (authority) doesn’t exist,” said Sheri Freemont, director of the Family Advocacy Center on the Salt River Pima Maricopa reservation in Arizona. “People choose to either work, live or play in Indian Country. I think they should be subject to Indian Country rules.”

Native American women suffer incidents of domestic violence at rates more than double national averages. But more than half of cases involving non-Indians go unprosecuted because Indian courts have lacked jurisdiction and because federal prosecutors often have too few resources to try cases on isolated reservations.

Still, the tribal courts provision was a major point of contention in Congress, with some Republicans arguing that subjecting non-Indians to Indian courts was unconstitutional.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said after its passage that the bill denies basic protections and will be tied up in court challenges for years.

To ease concerns that the new authority would violate the constitutional rights of a non-Indian or that jurors in tribal court would be unfair, the bill allows defendants to petition a federal court for review. A tribe would have jurisdiction over non-Indians when that person lives or works on the reservation and is married to or in a partnership with a tribal member.


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