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White Earth Band is writing a new criminal code

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WHITE EARTH, Minn. (AP) – Tribal leaders of the White Earth Band of Chippewa are writing a new criminal code to replace state law for members of the band.

The White Earth Reservation crosses three counties. That means three sheriff’s offices are responsible for law enforcement on the northwestern Minnesota reservation. Over the years, the agreement has caused tension between county and tribal governments.

White Earth Tribal Chairwoman Erma Vizenor said relying on counties for law enforcement has compromised public safety on the reservation.

“It all depends on the political whims of a sheriff or county commissioners. Our people deserve better than that,” she said.

Local sheriffs who were contacted by Minnesota Public Radio News say they aren’t prepared to comment on the issue. In the past, local officials have defended themselves against charges of slow response times and racial bias.

Now, White Earth wants the state of Minnesota to give up jurisdiction over tribal members, who would face tribal charges in a tribal court. The most serious crimes, like murder, would be prosecuted in federal court.

At issue is a 1953 congressional act known as Public Law 280 that gives states legal jurisdiction over tribal members. Minnesota is one of six states where the federal government mandated compliance with P.L. 280 on all reservations except Red Lake. Nationwide, an estimated 70 percent of American Indian tribal members are under P.L. 280.

White Earth wants the federal government to negate the authority of P.L. 280 on the reservation. The legal term is retrocession. The only way that can happen is if Gov. Tim Pawlenty requests the federal government allow retrocession at White Earth.

The governor’s office did not respond to MPR’s questions seeking his position on the change. Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion declined comment.

Vizenor said she has told state officials of the tribe’s plan, but there have been no detailed discussions.

When P.L. 280 was put into place in 1953, it imposed state law on tribal members. Federal funds for tribal law enforcement were limited, and so most tribes could not afford a police force. In most cases, the local sheriff took over law enforcement on the reservation.

White Earth now has a police force and a tribal court. Officials say the next step is reclaiming judicial authority over tribal members.

The ultimate goal is to convince the state and federal governments to undo the congressional act.

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White Earth attorney Joe Plummer said the tribe never gave up its right to judicial independence. As a result, the tribe will take the first step without waiting for federal approval.

“The council plans on enacting a tribal criminal code that’s been in development for two years now,” he said. “Once that’s done, the officers will enforce it and individuals will be prosecuted through the tribal court.”

That move would create the possibility that tribal members could be charged under both tribal and state law for the same crime, until retrocession of P.L. 280 is accomplished. Local residents and some local officials are worried the tribe plans to enforce its law on all local residents.

Tribal officials say the new criminal code will apply only to tribal members. Nontribal residents will still be charged under state law.

Plummer, the tribal attorney, said tribal and state criminal codes will be different. That worries Becker County Administrator Brian Berg, who acknowledges that Becker County will save money if the prosecution of tribal members is shifted to tribal court. But he questions the fairness of two people facing different penalties for the same crime.

“One may be an enrolled member of the tribe and the other may be a nontribal member, and to have those go separate directions for the purpose of criminal adjudication, they may be treated differently,” he said. “That sounds a little unfair and I think our county board would have a problem with that.”

Vizenor, the tribal chairwoman, said the band does not intend to damage relationships with local or state governments over the issue.

“We need to have the support of our neighbors, the counties and reassure them that this is good for all of us. We need to have the support of the governor, the state. And all of those political entities are challenges for us.”

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