CHARLESTOWN, R.I. - A Rhode Island state judge has ordered seven members of the Narragansett Indian Tribe to appear in court Jan. 16 to be re-arraigned in connection with a notorious smoke shop siege by state troopers on tribal land three years ago.
Narragansett Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas and six other tribal members were arrested in July 2003 after defending themselves and their tribal land from a state police incursion at the tribe's smoke shop on the tribe's 1,800-acre settlement lands near Charlestown. The police claimed the tribe's sale of tax-free cigarettes was illegal and shut down the shop, seizing cigarettes, documents and money during the raid.
Following the arrest, tribal members were arraigned under various charges, including disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer and simple assault, and were freed on bail.
The tribe filed a lawsuit against the state, claiming its rights as a sovereign nation were violated and the smoke shop arrests case remained on hold while the lawsuit wended its way through the federal courts.
On Nov. 27, the Supreme Court denied the Narragansett's petition for a ''writ of certiorari'' to hear its appeal of a 1st Circuit Court ruling, which gave the state jurisdiction on the tribe's 1,800-acre reservation.
A little more than two weeks later, at a Dec. 18 status conference, state District Court Judge Frank Cenerini set the Jan. 16 court date and ordered all of the tribal members to appear for the arraignment. None of them attended the status conference.
John Brown, a Narragansett tribal council member, said the tribe is looking into the circumstances - ''both legal and political'' - by which the court decided to re-arraign the tribal members.
''We don't know why this judge wants to re-arraign people who have already been arraigned, given the flexibility, the fluidity, of the situation. We were charged; they arraigned us; they set bail, and we were on our way and said we'd be good until the matter is heard.
''The next step should be a status conference and a pre-trial hearing, if the issue is going to trial. Now this judge is bringing the charges from the past forward to being current charges; and there's a concern about that, because it's like new charges and when new charges are made they have a choice of either reducing the charges or adding more to them,'' Brown said.
''If I were of a suspicious mind, I would have to say I don't think it's being done to bring us flowers and roses. It wasn't even the state attorney general's office, which would normally request this; it was done by a judge in chambers,'' Brown said.
Brown said the tribe has concerns about the conduct of some of the judges at both the state and federal level in dealing with the tribe's issues.
''Certainly, we are going to have to look into it. I think if you have a decision that comes out of a federal court that makes absolutely no sense then you have to look at how they arrived at that decision: Was it politically motivated? Racially motivated? Was it biased?
''I think either individually or severally, those things have to be looked at. I can't speak for the tribe, but I understand when you do such things you incur the wrath of the judiciary; but in this case perhaps those folks think they're beyond being reviewed. That frightens the hell out of me,'' Brown said.
Neither the judge nor a spokesman at Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch's office could be reached by press time.
Jack Killoy, the attorney representing the tribe in the smoke shop case, could not be reached for comment. Following the status conference, Killoy said he would be seeking documents including the state police report on the raid, a report by a panel appointed by the governor to review the incident and media footage of the raid, which was widely televised.
Douglas Luckerman, who represents the tribe in land-use issues, said it is unusual for people who have been arraigned to be re-arraigned: ''I don't know how unusual it is in Rhode Island, but everything that's happened to this tribe in Rhode Island is, unfortunately, not according to the rule book.''