White Earth Indian tribe 1st to team up with US prosecutors

Published 9:09 am Friday, March 15, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — An American Indian tribe in northern Minnesota will become the first in the country to team up with federal prosecutors under a law designed to improve public safety on reservations, the U.S. Department of Justice announced today.

The White Earth Nation will share jurisdiction with the Justice Department when it comes to prosecuting crimes such as murder, rape or felony child abuse, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole announced Friday. Starting June 1, federal, state and tribal authorities will work together to examine those types of cases to see where prosecution makes the most sense.

The shared jurisdiction is possible under the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010, which gave the Justice Department discretion to accept requests for shared jurisdiction with tribes that are also subject to state jurisdiction in six states, including Minnesota. Though other tribes in the country have requested shared jurisdiction, White Earth’s application is the first to be accepted.

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Cole said the decision to partner with White Earth came down to several factors, including the tribe’s solid application and the fact that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minnesota already has a great deal of experience working on crimes in Indian Country. Department officials also examined whether the opportunity for federal prosecution of some crimes would improve the security of people on the reservation.

“We were able to make the determination that we could help with public safety in Indian Country at White Earth,” Cole said. “We’re going to do the cases that will have the greatest impact for the tribe.”

Authorities in White Earth did not return phone calls Thursday seeking comment ahead of the formal announcement.

Federal prosecutors plan to focus on the most serious cases, which could include heinous child exploitation cases or drive-by shootings, rather than take a large quantity of cases. The Justice Department already has jurisdiction to prosecute federal crimes, such as drug trafficking or financial crimes, wherever they happen in the U.S., even if they occur on an Indian reservation. Two reservations in Minnesota, Red Lake and Bois Forte, are already under federal jurisdiction.

Because White Earth is the first to share jurisdiction with federal prosecutors, there is some uncertainty as to how the process will work, U.S. Attorney for Minnesota B. Todd Jones said. But he added that his office has worked hard to build relationships with White Earth officials and county attorneys that overlap the reservation. Jones also said he has confidence in the tribal police department.

Jones said one challenge his office already faces is the time and distance it takes to travel to White Earth. He also said his office did not get additional resources, which was a disappointment.

“We will continue to monitor very closely the impact of this on our ability to do our job throughout the district,” he said.

Jones said public safety in tribal communities is a complex issue, but that he hopes the shared jurisdiction will benefit all communities.

“This is just another option that we have to provide public safety and protect folks on White Earth,” he said.