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Narragansetts' smoke shop raid case gets new venue

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Seven members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe facing criminal charges in connection with a notorious state police smoke shop raid on tribal lands will have their cases heard in Providence Superior Court.

Tribal attorneys had filed motions requesting the change of venue from Superior Court in Washington County, where the tribe's 1,800-acre Charlestown reservation is located. A Superior Court judge issued a ruling March 5 allowing the change.

John Brown, a tribal council member and director of the tribe's Historic Preservation Office, said the new venue will offer more flexibility, scope and convenience for the expected trial.

''The reasoning was that if there's going to be a jury trial, there would be a better and larger pool of people to pick from, a more diverse pool to pick from; and the second area of reasoning was the fact that that's where the majority of the people are that we would be calling on as witnesses on behalf of the tribe,'' Brown said.

Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas and six tribal members were arrested on July 14, 2003, when around 30 state troopers and a canine unit stormed the tribe's reservation on a search warrant to shut down its tax-free cigarette shop. The tribal members tried to protect their property, and the ensuing struggle was televised nationwide. The police claimed the tribe's sale of tax-free cigarettes was illegal and shut down the shop.

Tribal members were arraigned on charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer and simple assault, and were freed on bail.

The tribe challenged the arrests in court, claiming its sovereign rights had been violated. A three-judge panel of the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, but ruled that the state could impose taxes on the reservation.

The case was re-heard in front of all the judges and, in a 4 - 2 decision last May, the court not only reversed its earlier decision but also broadened it to say that the state can enforce all of its laws on the reservation.

Last November, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the tribe's appeal of the 1st Circuit Court ruling.

Soon after the U.S. Supreme Court denial, a Rhode Island district court judge ordered the re-arraignment on the smoke shop raid charges. Tribal members pleaded not guilty on Jan. 23.

No date has been scheduled for the jury trial to begin.

In a related case, a panel of the 1st Circuit Court on March 7 reinstated a jury award of more than $300,000 for tribal member Adam Jennings, whose ankle was broken by the state police during the smoke shop raid.

Jennings, who worked at the smoke shop, was awarded $301,000 in March 2005 by a jury that found Trooper Ken Jones unconstitutionally used excessive force against him. A district court judge reversed the award in that summer, saying the trooper used reasonable force.

A spokesman for Attorney General Patrick Lynch said his office was considering a request for the case to be heard in front of the full appeals court, according to an Associated Press report.