The Federal Indian Country Crimes Act limits the ability of state and local law enforcement officials in charging Native Americans with crimes when the alleged crime occurs on Native American land. This raises the issue of what is considered Native American land.
While certain situations are simple such as historical treaty land, allotted lands or lands later federally recognized as Indian lands, other situations are more complicated. The recent New Mexico Court of Appeals case of State v. Vandever presented one such more challenging case.
The question in Vandever was whether land purchased by a tribe, used by the tribe and for the benefit of the tribe constituted tribal lands. The question might seem to answer itself. However, there were added complications. Most notably that the land was neither within the historical boundaries of the tribe nor had it been officially designated tribal land by Congress.
The defendant was driving under the influence of alcohol, when he struck and killed a highway worker. He continued driving leaving the scene until later stopped by the police. The officer smelled alcohol. When asked, the defendant admitted to drinking a six-pack of beer. The defendant then took a blood test, which revealed the defendant had a blood alcohol level of .19%.
The defendant was charged with an aggravated DWI, homicide by vehicle and knowingly leaving the scene of an accident. In court, he argued that the court did not have jurisdiction because he is a member of the Navajo Nation and the incident occurred on the Navajo Nation land.
Interestingly, both the defendant and the prosecution agreed that the incident occurred on land purchased and owned by the Navajo Nation. The issue then became, whether the land owned by the Navajo Nation was considered part of the Navajo reservation under the Indian Country Crimes Act, thereby preventing the police from charging the defendant in New Mexico State Court.
The Court noted and the testifying experts agreed that the historically drawn borders of Indian lands, including that of the Navajo Nation, have changed or time stating:
“…since the 1868 treaty was signed, there have been changes made to Navajo Nation treaty boundaries by congressional acts of diminishment, temporary expansions of boundaries, allotments of parcels of land to individual Indians, and return of land to the public domain.”
The State argued and the Court agreed that the critical question was whether the crime occurred on Indian land as defined and delineated at the time of the crime not the historical boundaries.
The Court placed the burden on the defendant to prove that the crime occurred within then existing tribal boundaries. It was not enough that the tribe owned the land and used it for tribal purposes. The land had to be federally recognized as tribal land at the time of the crime which the defendant was unable to show.
The case makes sense in that tribal sovereignty without the distinction of federal recognition could be greatly expanded through the simple purchase of lands for tribal use. This was never the intent of Congress at the time of the 1868 Treaty or since.
And in the end, keep in mind, that had the State of New Mexico not assumed jurisdiction over the case, the U.S. Attorney surely would have. So a victory may have been short-lived in any event.
Factors Leading to a Charge of Aggravated DWI in New Mexico