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Judge dismisses domestic violence charge in landmark Native American case

Published: Friday, Oct. 15 2010 5:53 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — A judge has dismissed a federal domestic violence charge against a member of the Northern Ute Indian Tribe because he didn't have an attorney when he was tried and convicted in two prior domestic violence cases in tribal court.

Adam Ray Shavanaux, 37, of Fort Duchesne, was indicted by a federal grand jury in May on one count of domestic assault by a habitual offender while within Indian Country. The indictment alleged that Shavanaux assaulted the victim at their home on Jan. 10, and had two previous convictions for assault on a domestic partner.

The case marked the first time federal prosecutors in Utah charged someone as a habitual domestic violence offender while within Indian Country since the offense was created in 2006 by amendments to the Violence Against Women Act. Shavanaux faced up to five years in prison and a possible fine of $250,000, if convicted.

"We are committed to using every tool we have to address domestic violence on Native American reservations in Utah," said acting U.S. Attorney for Utah Carlie Christensen, in announcing the indictment against Shavanaux.

"The charge in this indictment … is appropriate given the ongoing conduct of this defendant," Christensen said.

But U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell, in a ruling issued Thursday, said prosecutors could not rely on Shavanaux's 2006 and 2008 domestic violence assault convictions in Ute Tribal Court because he was indigent and had not been provided with an attorney.

Despite acknowledging that Indian tribes are not required to provide legal counsel to a member charged with a crime, Campbell wrote that, "Mr. Shavanaux's Sixth Amendment right to counsel would be violated if (the federal) prosecution were to proceed."

In reaching her decision, Campbell cited a 2009 ruling handed down in an identical case by a U.S. District Court judge in North Dakota.

In that case, Judge Ralph R. Erickson dismissed a charge of domestic assault by a habitual offender while within Indian Country against a member of the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe. The ruling referenced deficiencies Erickson said are prevalent in tribal courts around the country, including "a lack of adequate funding, a lack of adequately trained personnel, and a lack of true judicial independence."

"This gives rise to a justice system that provides uneven legal services, at best," the judge wrote. "The problem is exacerbated by a lack of adequate resources for treatment, rehabilitation and even incarceration."

These deficiencies, Erickson added, mean that "significant constitutional issues tend to arise when tribal court convictions cross over into the federal judicial system."

Federal prosecutors in North Dakota have appealed Erickson's ruling to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in Des Moines, Iowa.

Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah, said prosecutors are appealing Campbell's decision.

Shavanaux remains in federal custody.

e-mail: geoff@ubstandard.com

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