Ute Tribe sues Wasatch County over prosecution of tribal member

Published: Monday, Dec. 9 2013 1:56 p.m. MST

HEBER CITY — The Ute Indian Tribe has filed a federal lawsuit against Wasatch County saying it has no business prosecuting the tribal member because she was arrested inside historic boundaries of a reservation.

The lawsuit is the latest in a series of legal actions the Ute Tribe has taken against Utah government agencies this year.

Attorneys for the tribe argue that even though Lesa Ann Jenkins was pulled over in July 2012 by a Utah Highway Patrol trooper on state Route 35, the trooper didn't have the authority to arrest her because she is an enrolled tribal member and the stop happened on a section of SR-35 that is inside the historic boundaries of the Uintah Valley Reservation.

For the same reason, the lawsuit argues, Wasatch County prosecutors lacked jurisdiction to charge Jenkins, 49, with being an interlock-restricted driver operating a vehicle without an ignition interlock system; failing to install an ignition interlock device; driving on a suspended, revoked or denied license; and speeding.

"The defendants' prosecution of Ms. Jenkins violates federal law," the tribe's complaint states.

Gov. Gary Herbert, former Utah Attorney General John Swallow and two Wasatch County prosecutors are also named as defendants in the suit, which was filed Dec. 3 in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City.

A call to the Wasatch County Attorney's Office seeking comment Monday was not immediately returned. Utah Attorney General's Office spokesman Paul Murphy said he was unable to comment on the tribe's lawsuit because attorneys haven't had a chance yet to review it.

In April, attorneys for the Ute Tribe filed an 11-page federal lawsuit filled with allegations of racial profiling, police harassment and illegal prosecutions in Duchesne and Uintah counties.

At the same time, they also asked U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins to reopen a case 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.

Like the Wasatch County case, the controversy stems from 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.

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 — and federal law — by arresting them on reservation land and then prosecuting them.

Uintah County Attorney G. Mark Thomas, however, has said he 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 requested stays in recent cases that involve tribal members while the state, counties, cities and tribe work out their disagreements in federal court.

Jenkins declined to issue the temporary restraining order sought by the tribe in its case against the state, Duchesne and Uintah counties, and the cities. He set a pretrial conference for June 24.

Attorneys for the tribe have asked Judge Dee Benson to issue a preliminary injunction that would prevent Wasatch County from continuing its prosecution of Lesa Jenkins. A hearing on that request had not been scheduled.

Email: gliesik@deseretnews.com

Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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