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Court rules against New Mexico in tribal sex offender case

SANTA FE, N.M. – New Mexico’s sex offender registration law does not apply to Native Americans living within the boundaries of tribal lands, the state Court of Appeals has ruled in a decision reaffirming the state’s limited authority in Indian country.

The unanimous ruling came in consolidated cases involving three Navajos, who were arrested in San Juan County in northwestern New Mexico outside the Navajo reservation. They were charged with failing to register as sex offenders under a state law.

The three men lived on tribal land and did not work or go to school off the reservation. They each had been convicted previously under federal law of sex offenses against minors.

The state arrests occurred before the Navajo Nation implemented a requirement in April 2006 for convicted sex offenders who work, live or attend school on the reservation to register with tribal police.

The court said New Mexico lacked the jurisdiction to enforce its sex offender registration law on lands within “Indian country,” which New Mexico courts have said includes private, non-Indian owned lands within reservation boundaries.

The Navajo Nation is the largest of more than 20 tribes and pueblos in New Mexico.

Under state law, sex offenders who live in New Mexico must register with their local county sheriff. Registration also is required for sex offenders who are residents of another state, but work or attend school in New Mexico. The state first enacted its law in 1995, and has since amended it.

A 2006 federal law revised requirements for sex offender registration and dealt with questions of tribal and state authority over registration laws. If a tribal government didn’t approve a resolution by July 2007 to participate in a national registry – possibly by contracting with a state – then jurisdiction over sex offender registration on tribal lands is delegated to a state.

The court noted the 2006 federal law in deciding the cases of the Navajo men. Earlier federal laws on sex offender registration, which prompted New Mexico and other states to establish registration requirements, did not explicitly override tribal sovereignty, the court said.

“The state points to the broad nature of the term ‘resident’ and the fact that Indians are for most purposes residents of the state they live in to argue that Congress’ intent was to be all-inclusive. This approach, however, is the opposite of our normal mode of interpretation of statutes affecting Indians and Indian tribes, and we decline to indulge it,” the court said.

The appeal court issued its ruling June 4, overturning the felony convictions of two men, Arnold Atcitty and Michael Billy, for failing to register with the state. In the case of a third man, Norman Jim, the court decided his prosecution on a similar charge should be dismissed by a district court in San Juan County.

Attorney General Gary King’s office did not respond to a request June 5 for comment on the court’s ruling or whether it will appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.

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