Ute Tribe accuses agencies of racial profiling

Published: Friday, April 19 2013 8:23 p.m. MDT

FORT DUCHESNE, Uintah County — Leaders of the Ute Indian Tribe have revived their claims that state and local law enforcement officers in the Uintah Basin routinely engage in racial profiling of tribal members.

The allegations of police harassment and jurisdictional violations are included in an 11-page lawsuit filed this week in U.S. District Court.

"The tribe is fed up with this activity," Ute Tribe Business Committee Chairwoman Irene Cuch said Friday. "Driving while Indian is not a crime in this country."

The Business Committee, which serves as the executive and legislative branches of tribal government, has named the state of Utah, Duchesne and Uintah counties, and the cities of Duchesne, Myton and Roosevelt as defendants in its lawsuit.

Tribal attorneys also asked a federal judge Wednesday to reinstate a case filed by the tribe against the state, the counties and Roosevelt and Duchesne cities in 1975. The case was dismissed in 2000, after the parties inked a trio of 10-year contracts that appeared to resolve their jurisdictional disagreements.

Only one of those contracts remains in effect.

At issue in both cases is a long-running dispute over who has criminal and civil regulatory jurisdiction over tribal members in parts of the Uintah Basin, and whether Congress ever "diminished or disestablished" the Uncompahgre Indian Reservation, which is part of the larger Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation.

Tribal leaders cite a 1997 ruling by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, known as Ute V, in arguing that state and local authorities regularly violate tribal members' rights.

In that ruling, the appellate court held that the Uncompahgre Reservation had not been diminished or disestablished when unallotted land was returned to public domain in the 1890s.

"The state and counties know where the jurisdictional boundaries lie," Cuch said, "but they still refuse to acknowledge the 10th Circuit Court's decision.

"They are patrolling in areas that are clearly tribal land," she said. "The tribe considers this activity to constitute a trespass, especially since these officers have no authority to come onto the reservation."

Uintah County Attorney G. Mark Thomas, however, called the Ute V decision "ill-reasoned" and said state and local law enforcement officers do have authority to do what they are doing under a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

"We're choosing to rely on the ruling in the Hagen case," Thomas said.

In Hagen v. Utah, the nation's highest court ruled that the Uintah Valley Indian Reservation — the precursor to the Uintah-Ouray Reservation — had been diminished when Congress opened it for homesteading in the 1900s. That ruling gives state and local authorities civil and criminal jurisdiction in those areas, Thomas said.

"(Tribal leaders) imply whatever they want to in the law and then they turn around and cry foul when we try to enforce the law," Thomas said.

The tribe's lawsuit makes specific mention of Thomas' recent prosecutions of individuals who are accused of committing crimes on land where jurisdiction is in dispute. Keith Kessley Blackhair's case is one example.

Blackhair pleaded guilty in March 2012 in federal court to beating a man so severely that the victim suffered permanent brain damage. He began serving a four-month prison sentence two weeks ago.

Last June, Thomas filed an aggravated assault charge against Blackhair in 8th District Court for the same incident. Thomas said the case, which is still pending, was filed because he doesn't believe the area where the attack happened is still federally recognized as "Indian Country."

"If you use the analysis of Hagen, it was disestablished," he said.

Blackhair's attorney in the federal case initially asked the judge to throw the case out, citing a Bureau of Indian Affairs document that showed the offense hadn't happened in Indian Country. The BIA later provided another document which showed that it did, and Blackhair pleaded guilty.

Ron Yengich, who is representing Blackhair in the Uintah County case, has challenged the state's claim of jurisdiction over his client. A state court judge will hear arguments on the issue in May.

Thomas said he would like to see a ruling that settles the jurisdiction issue once and for all, but he admits that is unlikely to happen.

"We want jurisdiction to be clear. We would like a resolution," the prosecutor said, "but the challenge is that every time we get a resolution, it's interpreted differently by different people."

Email: gliesik@desnews.com

Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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