Omaha Tribe wants more control over arrests and prosecutions

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By Paul Hammel -- Omaha World-Herald, Neb.

LINCOLN, Neb. (MCT) - The Omaha Tribe is seeking a new avenue to relieve the confusing and overlapping jurisdiction of law enforcement on its northeast Nebraska reservation.

But the idea, which would give the tribe more local control over arrests and prosecution of its tribal members involved in minor crimes, has drawn stiff opposition from the Thurston County Board and Thurston County sheriff.

It also prompted a public meeting Feb. 12 at the fire hall in Pender, the Thurston County seat, to discuss the proposal.

''This is not about race, but it's the most un-American thing I've ever heard of,'' said Teri Lamplot, Thurston County Board chairman.

She said the change would make nontribal members subject to tribal court.

That will be true in the case of some minor crimes, said a lobbyist and an attorney for the Omaha Tribe, but tribal law enforcement will be as fair as state law enforcement. The proposed change, they said, would lower the county's cost for law enforcement and clarify jurisdictional boundaries.

''Anything that can clarify the jurisdictional quagmire on this reservation will help everyone,'' said Maurice Johnson, a tribal attorney.

The controversy is the latest between the tribe and officials with the county and with Pender over jurisdiction in law enforcement, liquor rules and pesticide regulation. The exact boundaries of the Omaha Reservation are another concern.

The dispute was sparked Jan. 25 by the introduction of Legislative Resolution 234 in the Nebraska Legislature by State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, on behalf of the tribe.

LR 234 calls on the State of Nebraska to relinquish, or retrocede, to the federal government the state's jurisdiction over criminal and civil violations within the Omaha Reservation. Such a retrocession, which already has been granted to the Winnebago and Santee Tribes, must gain final approval by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

A public hearing on LR 234 was scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Feb. 20 before the Legislature's Judiciary Committee. The Thurston County Board voted 4 - 1 Feb. 12 to oppose LR 234.

If the state ultimately grants retrocession, the Omaha Tribal Police, like tribal police forces on Nebraska's other two reservations, could contract with the federal government to enforce minor criminal laws and traffic offenses within the reservation. Tribal police also would serve civil papers.

Federal courts would retain jurisdiction over major crimes on the reservation.

Currently, the Omaha Tribe has only a partial retrocession, according to tribal lobbyist Ben Thompson. The tribe was precluded, under a 1969 agreement, from enforcing traffic offenses.

If the retrocession is approved, Thompson said that public safety would be enhanced because sheriff's cruisers don't often patrol the roads near Macy, the tribal headquarters.

Retrocession also would mean, he said, that the Omaha Tribe would be treated the same as the state's other two tribes.

But Lamplot and Thurston County Sheriff Chris Kleinberg said they see big problems in retrocession, as well as differences in the case of the Omaha Reservation.

Kleinberg said tribal law enforcement often is influenced by whether an offender is a relative of a member of the tribal council, which appoints tribal judges.

He said he recently encountered problems in trying to enforce garnishment orders for tribal members who work for the tribe. Tribal employers have twice refused to honor court orders to garnishee an employee's wages, Kleinberg said.

''This kind of scares me, to be honest with you,'' the sheriff said.

Johnson, the tribal attorney, said bias also exists in the current, non-Indian law enforcement system.

If retrocession is granted, non-Indians would not be subject to traffic tickets from tribal police, though non-Indians could find themselves in tribal court if they are accused of a misdemeanor crime against an Indian or are a victim of such a crime, Johnson said.

That would be similar to what happens now on the Santee Indian Reservation, which was granted retrocession two years ago and started its own tribal police force.

Knox County Sheriff Jim Janecek, whose office used to handle law enforcement on the Santee Reservation, said he believes retrocession works there, though the tribe has a hard time retaining officers.

Unlike the case with the Omaha Reservation, Janecek said, there is no dispute over the reservation's boundaries.

On the Winnebago Reservation, a federally trained police force through the BIA conducts patrols.

The Omaha Tribe tried a different approach in 2005. Gov. Dave Heineman signed a cross-deputization agreement allowing trained state troopers and trained tribal police to enforce each other's laws. But the Omaha Tribal Council abandoned that approach last year, Johnson said, and the retrocession process began.

A spokesman for Heineman said his administration is studying LR 234 and had not decided whether to support it.

Copyright (c) 2008, Omaha World-Herald, Neb. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.