Oklahoma crime: Jurisdiction in Indian country involves federal, tribal, state governments

BY SHEILA STOGSDILL Published: April 22, 2012
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When an infant's body was found under a bed in a dormitory at Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, the death was investigated by two federal agencies rather than state agencies.

Because the American Indian boarding school is on federal land, the FBI and the Bureau of Indian Affairs had jurisdiction over the investigation, not the Caddo County sheriff and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation.

The November 2009 crime also fell under the Major Crimes Act and the Indian Country Crime Act because it involved an American Indian and a homicide.

“Criminal jurisdiction in Indian country is allocated among three governments — federal, tribal and state,” said Lisa Liebl, Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes spokeswoman.

Federal agencies investigate crimes committed under the Major Crimes Act and the Indian Country Crimes Act. Tribal law enforcement departments have jurisdiction over victimless and misdemeanor crimes committed on tribal land. Local agencies — such as county sheriff offices and municipal police departments — have jurisdiction over crimes committed by a non-Indian against another non-Indian in Indian country.

The Major Crimes Act covers more serious offenses, including homicide, rapes, sexual assaults, thefts and embezzlement.

The Indian Country Crimes Act applies if either the defendant or the victim is American Indian. A federal prosecutor handles prosecution of those types of cases.

The two acts overlap when an Indian is accused of a “major” crime against a non-Indian in Indian country, Liebl said.

Tribal courts apply the same standard of justice and fairness as Oklahoma judges and prosecutors, Liebl said. Tribal courts cannot impose the death penalty or more than one-year incarceration for misdemeanor-type crimes. They can impose a $5,000 fine, Liebl said.

If an American Indian is punished by a tribe, the federal government has no authority under the Indian Country Crimes Act to prosecute the person again, Liebl said.

Tribal police departments

“Some tribes have their own law enforcement,” said Felicia Heartfield, Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes director of security.

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The current (investigation) trend is leaning toward white-collar crimes.”

Jerry Keener

Bureau of Indian Affairs special agent

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