On Monday, the United States Supreme Court granted a hearing inUnited States v. Bryant, a case involving Indian rights in criminal cases that will decide whether prior misdemeanor convictions in domestic violence cases made without legal counsel can be used in federal court. By using tribal court convictions to determine eligibility for “Habitual Offender” status under federal law, the case could be a crucial test for tribes and law enforcement in prosecuting and preventing the high rates of domestic violence on Indian lands.
The defendant in this case, Michael Bryant Jr., is an enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe with numerous misdemeanor convictions who had been imprisoned numerous times for domestic assault. Bryant had pled guilty in tribal court to multiple offenses in the last 16 years, for which he had entered plea agreements without a lawyer.
In 2011, Bryant was convicted for assaults on two women. According to court documents, in February of that year, he dragged his live-in girlfriend from bed, pulling her hair, punching and kicking her repeatedly. Three months later, he attacked another woman by yelling at her and choking her until she nearly lost consciousness, according to the petition for certiorari filed by the Solicitor General’s office.
Based on Bryant’s seven prior misdemeanor convictions, he was deemed eligible for “Habitual Offender” status and was indicted in federal district court in Montana on two counts of domestic assault. He was subsequently sentenced to 46 months in federal prison on each count.
Though Bryant pled guilty to both assaults, he later sought to have his federal indictment dismissed, saying that using his prior misdemeanor convictions to prove “habitual offender” status under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) violates his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights.
His request for dismissal was denied by the district court, but in September 2014, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Portland, Oregon, reversed his indictment, ruling that his previous tribal court record was “unconstitutionally impermissible” for establishing habitual offender status, thereby setting the stage for this upcoming Supreme Court showdown.
Court watchers say the case has the potential to cripple the ability of law enforcement to prosecute and prevent domestic violence incidents on Indian reservations, which are the highest in the country, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
"Tribal Governments, like all other sovereign governments, know best how to balance the rights of their women to be free from domestic violence with the rights of the accused perpetrators to be treated fairly and afforded due process,” says Mary Kathryn Nagle, attorney for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center and partner at Pipestem Law Firm. “Nothing in the United States Constitution provides the U.S. federal courts with the authority to determine how Tribal Governments will adjudicate disputes that fall exclusively between tribal citizens.”
To address the high rate of crimes against Indian women – who are battered, raped and stalked in greater numbers than any other group of women in the U.S. – Congress enacted both a Habitual Offender provision and a tribal jurisdiction provision in the Violence Against Women Act in 2013. This was in direct response to the outcry from tribal advocates who said such provisions were necessary because of the domestic violence crisis in Native communities across the nation.
“Because the Ninth Circuit's decision imposes a limitation on the exercise of tribal sovereignty to protect Native women from domestic violence and abuse, the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center will file an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn the Ninth Circuit's decision and uphold tribal sovereignty,” said Nagle.
Oral arguments are expected sometime in January.
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