Jurisdiction issues dominate law enforcement hearing

WASHINGTON - Jurisdiction was at the forefront of a law enforcement hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs June 21. Committee chairman Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., began with it in his opening statement and never strayed far from the theme of a labyrinth of overlapping jurisdictions with an Indian or Alaska Native crime victim at its center, awaiting help that is often delayed as tribal, state and federal officers and courts work through the maze of obstructions to basic justice. ''Indian country is the only place in the nation where this is the case,'' Dorgan emphasized.

''The federal government, including the federal courts, has placed upon itself the burden to exercise day-to-day law enforcement authority over 55 million acres of Indian country land. Yet our efforts to secure these lands can only be described as shameful. We, the federal government and the courts, have created a jurisdictional maze in Indian country that has resulted in a failed system that fails to protect victims and communities. I have a chart [on exhibit] that shows ... the law enforcement jurisdiction in Indian country that's confusing, it's an unbelievable maze, it creates different approaches dealing with the race of the offender, the race of the victim, the severity of the crime, whether the crime is committed on tribal land, tribal land in a Public Law 280 state [where the state, instead of the tribe or federal government, has assumed criminal and civil jurisdiction on reservations], or state land. ...''

Fittingly for a morning when witnesses and congressional members alike praised an April 24 Amnesty International report - ''Maze of Injustice: The Failure to Protect Indigenous Women From Sexual Violence in the USA'' - as a wake-up call and a catalyst, Dorgan cited a Gallup Independent newspaper account of a rape victim who spent three years waiting for justice.

''The problem was that it was unclear whether the crime was committed on tribal land or non-Indian land. The type of land on which the crime was committed determined whether the tribe, the federal government or the state government had jurisdiction.''

Dorgan asked his witnesses for solutions, not simply a recitation of known problems. Thomas Heffelfinger, former U.S. Attorney and for five years chairman of a Department of Justice subcommittee on Native American issues before joining the Minneapolis law firm of Best and Flanagan, complied by offering a slate of solutions, though not before also pouring derision on the current law enforcement system in Indian country.

''The last hundred and twenty-two years of Supreme Court decisions and stop-gap legislative actions, criminal jurisdiction in Indian country has become a mess,'' Heffelfinger said. '' ... A mess which means law enforcement is more difficult, delay is normal, respect for the law is deteriorating, and the losers in that situation are tribal governments and tribal people.''

He called for the comprehensive clarification and simplification of criminal jurisdiction in Indian country, suggesting a two-part process. Short-term, Heffelfinger said, Congress should immediately empower tribal governments, courts and law officers to clamp down on drug dealers and domestic abusers, ''outsiders who are bringing misery to Indian country''; invest in multi-jurisdictional task forces; and establish near-reservation family violence centers focused on child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence.

Finally, long-term, Heffelfinger said the full body of Indian criminal jurisdiction law should be comprehensively studied and overhauled. The Justice Department can't do it and a commission is a reluctant alternative, he acknowledged. ''But I'm suggesting that Congress establish a criminal justice commission to develop reforms that will give us a comprehensively new body of criminal law in Indian country.'' Without the clout and leadership of Congress over a commission, he said, ''We're merely adding band-aids and we're not going to bring about a long-term change in the quality of life against crime in Indian country.''

Joe Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians, said he supports the proposed commission but added that Congress must take immediate action, backed by funding, to address the root causes of crime in Indian country. ''It will take a lot more than what we're doing now.''