Federal prosecutors have filed a lawsuit alleging the Ute Indian Tribal Court overstepped its jurisdictional bounds in a civil rights case involving a now deceased tribal member.
The action arose after Ute tribal attorney Gary J. Montana filed a $3 million lawsuit last month on behalf of Velman T. Johnson's estate against the city of Roosevelt, its police department, Officer Gerald Payne and Utah County Chief Investigator Richard Castro.According to the suit, Payne assisted Castro in the May 29, 1989, arrest of Johnson, who was 70 at the time, for what they believe was driving under the influence.
Johnson allegedly was dragged from his vehicle, slammed to the ground and kicked, the suit said.
The suit further alleged that the two officers ignored Johnson's pleas for medical attention and were unaware that he was weakened from dialysis treatment, thus not under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
However, a suit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court charged that the tribal court of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation and Tribal Judge Katherine Jenks had no jurisdiction over Payne, also a special deputy with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Payne was appointed to the BIA to enforce tribal and state laws within the boundaries of the reservation, the suit said.
The suit also alleges the tribal court had no authority to issue a temporary restraining order on the Department of Interior's regional solicitor's office and the U.S. attorney's office.
That order sought to prevent federal attorneys "from intimidating, coercing and interviewing" Felicita Foolbear, a federal employee who apparently witnessed Johnson's alleged beating and arrest, until a hearing could be set to resolve the matter.
The suit also claims the tribal court did not have authority to issue an order to the FBI demanding copies of its reports and records of the Johnson arrest. And a restraining order cannot be granted without the submission of an affidavit or verified complaint, the suit maintained.
Moreover, the tribal court had no jurisdiction over Payne, because the appropriate forum for action against him would be U.S. District Court, the suit said.
"As a matter of federal law, the tribal court lacks jurisdiction to hear actions for damages against federal officers . . . since such actions would constitute unconsented suits against the United States, barred by sovereign immunity," the suit said.
The federal government is requesting that the prior restraining orders be deemed void, that a judge find the tribal court had no jurisdiction over the case and that proceedings in the case be postponed until the proper jurisdiction can be determined.