HELENA – The chairman of the Blackfeet Indian tribe says the U.S. attorney for Montana broke the trust of the tribe when he decided to prosecute a tribal council member and state senator accused of fleeing a traffic stop on the reservation.
The federal prosecution of Democratic Sen. Shannon Augare for reckless and drunken driving and obstruction of a peace officer is an incursion into tribal sovereignty, Chairman Willie Sharp Jr. wrote to U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter in an Aug. 14 letter recently obtained by The Associated Press.
“We want to make it very clear that your office took jurisdiction in this case without any consultation with the government body and government of the Blackfeet Tribe and against the laws of the Blackfeet Tribe,” Sharp wrote. “We are very disappointed with your action and believe you have breached the trust relationship between your office and the Blackfeet Tribe.”
Sharp did not return a call on how Augare’s prosecution has changed the dealings between the federal and tribal offices.
Cotter said Friday he could not comment on the relationship between his office and the Blackfeet, but said it has not affected operations.
“We’re conducting business on the reservation,” he said.
Tribal attorney Joe McKay, who is representing Augare in the charges related to the May 26 traffic stop on U.S. Highway 2, said in court filings that tribes have inherent authority to exercise criminal jurisdiction over all Indians.
Federal prosecutors’ attempt to exercise jurisdiction in the case could result in the “evisceration of tribal criminal jurisdictional authority,” McKay wrote.
He is asking a federal magistrate judge to dismiss the charges.
The U.S. attorney’s office is pursuing the case under the federal Assimilated Crimes Act, which allows them to apply state laws to offenses committed in Indian country that are not specifically addressed in federal law. Federal prosecutors filed documents Friday in opposition to McKay’s motion to dismiss that say the tribe’s chief prosecutor asked the U.S. attorney’s office to step in, and the prosecutor is a tool of the Blackfeet tribal council.
Sharp said in his letter to Cotter that chief tribal prosecutor Carl Pepion had no power or authority to ask for a review or turn the case over to the U.S. attorney’s office, and he criticized Cotter for not talking to the tribal government before filing charges.
Pepion did not return a call for comment.
A Glacier County sheriff’s deputy pulled Augare over for erratic driving within the Blackfeet reservation boundaries, where generally only tribal law enforcement officers can ticket or arrest an enrolled tribal member for misdemeanor offenses such as drunken driving.
Augare, who had his mother in the pickup truck, ignored the deputy’s order to turn off the engine and sped away when the deputy reached to take his keys, prosecutors said.
The sheriff’s office turned the matter over to tribal law enforcement, and after three weeks without a decision on whether to press charges, Pepion gave the case to the U.S. attorney’s office for review. Federal prosecutors filed the three misdemeanor charges against Augare on June 21.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Strong has not ruled on the request to dismiss the charges. A trial date has been set for Sept. 26.
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