Prosecutor to seek stays in 4 cases involving Ute tribal members

Published: Wednesday, May 1 2013 5:51 p.m. MDT

VERNAL — Four members of the Ute Indian Tribe who are being prosecuted in Uintah County for charges ranging from aggravated assault to speeding could have their cases put on hold for up to three months under an agreement reached Tuesday in federal court.

Uintah County Attorney G. Mark Thomas made the offer to seek a 90-day stay in each of the cases during a hearing before Judge Bruce Jenkins.

Jenkins had been asked by the Ute Tribe to issue a temporary restraining order against state, county and municipal law enforcement officers and prosecutors in the Uintah Basin.

The tribe's request coincided with its April 17 filing of an 11-page federal lawsuit that contains allegations of racial profiling, police harassment and illegal prosecutions in Duchesne and Uintah counties.

Tribal leaders also asked Jenkins to reopen a case the Ute Tribe filed against the state, the counties and Roosevelt and Duchesne cities in 1975. Jenkins dismissed the case in 2000, after the parties signed three 10-year contracts that appeared to resolve their jurisdictional disagreements.

At issue in both cases is a long-running dispute over who has criminal and 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.

The four criminal cases the tribe has raised concerns about in its federal case involve Keith Kessley Blackhair, Janel Laureen Cuch, Maria Josie Jenkins and Jaymoe Tapoof.

Blackhair, 27, pleaded guilty in March 2012 in federal court to beating another member of the Ute Tribe so severely that the victim suffered permanent brain damage. He began serving a four-month federal prison sentence last month. Last June, Thomas filed an aggravated assault charge against Blackhair in 8th District Court for the same incident. The prosecutor has said he filed the case because he doesn't believe the area where the attack happened is still federally recognized as "Indian Country."

Cuch, 28, is charged in Uintah County Justice Court with driving on a suspended, denied or revoked license, a class B misdemeanor. The charge stems from a March 16 traffic stop by a Utah Highway Patrol trooper. Attorneys for the tribe claim the stop took place within the boundaries of the Uncompahgre Reservation; county prosecutors disagree.

Jenkins, 29, is charged in 8th District Court with possession of a controlled substance, a third-degree felony, and possession of drug paraphernalia, a class B misdemeanor. She was arrested Oct. 4, 2010, by a Uintah County sheriff's deputy after the deputy was informed by two Bureau of Indian Affairs police officers that the area where he'd found Jenkins was not on the reservation, according to charging documents. Attorneys for the tribe maintain that the arrest took place within the boundaries of the original Uintah Valley Reservation.

Tapoof, 41, is also charged in Uintah County Justice Court. On Nov. 23, a trooper pulled Tapoof over after he said he caught him driving 105 mph in a 65 mph zone. Prosecutors charged Tapoof with reckless driving, a class B misdemeanor, and speeding, a class C misdemeanor. Tribal attorneys claim the traffic stop took place within the boundaries of the Uncompahgre Reservation.

"These people are being put on trial when (prosecutors) don't have jurisdiction to do that," Todd Gravelle, an attorney for the Ute Tribe, said Wednesday.

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 by stopping and arresting them on reservation land, and then prosecuting them.

Thomas, however, considers the Ute V decision "ill-reasoned" and said state and local law enforcement officers do have jurisdiction under a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Hagen v. Utah.

Still, Thomas has agreed to request stays in the cases of Blackhair, Cuch, Jenkins and Tapoof while the state, counties, cities and tribe work out their disagreements in federal court.

The judge in each case would have to grant the prosecutor's request before the cases could be put on hold. That will likely require each defendant to agree to waive his or her right to a speedy trial.

Prosecutors in Duchesne County have agreed to ask for a similar stay in any case where the question of jurisdiction is raised, according to deputy county attorney Grant Charles.

At present, there are no pending cases where that has been identified as an issue, Charles said.

At the conclusion of Tuesday's hearing, Jenkins declined to issue the temporary restraining order sought by the tribe. He scheduled a pretrial conference for June 24.

Email: gliesik@deseretnews.com

Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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