At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.

Jurisdiction quagmire challenges Cherokee courts

Tribal leaders and prosecutors in Cherokee will now have stronger tools to mete out justice to criminals on the reservation, thanks to a bill signed into law by President Obama last year.

The Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, approved by Congress and the president in July of last year, gives tribal governments and court systems such as the ones in Cherokee increased power and flexibility in fighting crimes that are committed on their lands.

In the past, the jurisdictional tangle surrounding justice for crimes committed on the reservation, along with limited allowances on punishments, have meant that criminals don’t always get the penalties they may deserve for offenses in Cherokee.

Under old law, the harshest sentence a tribal court could impose for any charge was one year in prison and a $5,000 fine, which pales in comparison to the maximum penalties allowed at the state and federal level.

Now, tribes are free to approve penalties of up to three years and are allowed to stack up to three charges. That means that, if adopted by Tribal Council, multiple severe offenders could see as much as nine years of prison time.

To Tribal Prosecutor Jason Smith, this is a huge accomplishment for tribal justice and will change the face of many of his cases.

“It’s the biggest change that the new law has brought about as far a criminal liability is concerned,” said Smith. “I’m hopeful that it will allow the tribal court to prosecute and to punish a broader range of crimes more appropriately, to more appropriately and effectively deal with more serious crime than they have done in the past.”


A convoluted court

Committing a crime in Cherokee – and being prosecuted for it – isn’t as cut and dried as it would be outside the reservation. Not everyone who breaks the law in Cherokee can expect to go to tribal court for it, nor can everyone expect that they’ll be held accountable by state or federal law enforcement. As Smith puts it, “jurisdiction is a huge quagmire. It’s not as simple as that.”

To begin with, only enrolled members of the Eastern Band, enrolled members of other federally recognized tribes and non-U.S. citizens can be punished by tribal courts. In Cherokee, they have an extra provision for others who want to fall under the tribe’s authority – a waiver of jurisdiction, in legal speak – but it’s entirely optional and not without controversy.

Everybody else – which includes non-Indian local residents, American tourists, casino patrons – will get pursued by the long arm of some non-Native law, be it local for piddly offenses such as speeding, state for bigger but still victimless crimes, or federal for more major crimes or those perpetrated by Indians against non-Indian victims, and vice versa.

To call it a quagmire is putting it kindly, but according to Smith and Don Gast, his cohort in the U.S. Attorney’s office who prosecutes Cherokee’s federal cases, they do a good job of working within that framework.

According to Gast, his office doesn’t decline tribal cases in the same way they would with non-tribal cases. Of the many cases that come across a normal federal prosecutor’s desk, many are just too small-time to warrant attention in federal courts.  Gast doesn’t do that with cases that come to him from Cherokee.

“We don’t decline cases in our districts on the basis of crimes being not big enough in scope like we do on state cases,” said Gast, because they realize that for these cases, many of which are violent crimes such as rape and child abuse, federal court is their one chance to bring the alleged criminal to justice.


Bringing order out of chaos

Such crimes are the very reason the Tribal Law and Order Act was created. An Amnesty International study found that Native American women were more than twice as likely to suffer domestic abuse than other women in the United States, and a separate Department of Justice study found that one third of Native American women will experience rape in their lifetime.

Although neither of these unusually high statistics is caused by the difficult maze of prosecution and justice tribal jurisdiction creates, both named it as a barrier to lowering those high rates.

In light of that, the other important provision the law makes is a recommendation for formalized procedures for sending cases to federal court and closer communication with the local U.S. Attorney’s office. There’s even a provision for cross-training a tribal prosecutor as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney, or SAUSA, who would be able to follow cases off the reservation and into federal court and prosecute them there.

In Cherokee, they’re keen to see more cases federally prosecuted. At a special meeting on law and order held last week, more than one member expressed frustration at what they perceive as a high number of cases that don’t get taken to federal court, leaving victims without justice.

Council Member Teresa McCoy believe that some of the burden for making sure fewer cases fall through the cracks should fall to the council.

“Well, if we’re telling our public it just wasn’t big enough for the feds to take, then our laws should handle it,” said McCoy, advocating for adoption of the stiffer penalties the new federal law allows and possible banishment from the reservation for non-tribal members who can’t be prosecuted in tribal court.

“Every time there’s a dismissal there’s a victim and that victim got no help,” she said.

“We still have a way to help ease the pain of the public.”


No state “safety net”

Gast wouldn’t entirely agree with that assessment. He’s firm on the fact that he prosecutes any and every tribal case that comes before him unless it’s out of his jurisdiction or it’s a bad case. And, he said, because of the nature of many of the crimes – domestic, child and sexual abuse, among other violent crimes – there are more bad cases than a normal federal prosecutor, who mostly deals with proactive cases like sting operations, would see.

The sad truth, said Gast, is that often victims won’t or are afraid to speak, recant their stories or don’t want to prosecute their attackers. And this is true across the nation, not just on the reservation.

He maintains that, while tribal cases may be declined more often than non-tribal federal cases, that declination rate isn’t really any higher than the rates for similar crimes in state courts. Unreported or unprosecuted violent crimes are part of a broader, national trend that often has nothing to do with the prosecutor and everything to do with the victim.

“The mission of the U.S. Attorney’s office is to prosecute crime,” said Gast. “And in Indian country, the scope of that mission is broader because we don’t have the safety net of the state court.”

Still, in Indian Country, many would like to see the cracks that criminals have long slipped through closed, in whatever way they can.

Though Gast doesn’t see a need for it, Smith said he’d like to look into the possibility of a SAUSA for Cherokee. “It’s certainly something I think a lot of the public here would be in favor of,” said Smith, an observation that was proven true by public sentiments expressed at last week’s meeting.

But overall, Smith echoed Gast, noting the good working relationship that he enjoys with Gast’s office, a benefit not enjoyed by many western tribes, who are laboring with overworked prosecutors in huge districts.

“We’re in better shape than a lot of places and a lot of reservations because we have that cooperation and we have had with the U.S. Attorney,” said Smith. “But could it be better? Absolutely.”

Go to top