The U.S. government can prosecute misdemeanor driving offenses on Indian reservations, a federal magistrate judge ruled Tuesday in rejecting a request to dismiss charges against a Blackfeet tribal leader and Montana state senator.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Strong said the federal government shares jurisdiction with tribal governments. He rebuffed arguments by Shannon Augare’s attorney, who said the federal government’s case against the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council member and Democratic senator was an intrusion of tribal sovereignty.
Augare is charged with DUI, reckless driving and obstruction of a peace officer. He is accused of fleeing a Glacier County sheriff’s deputy during a May traffic stop on U.S. Highway 2 within the northwestern Montana reservation’s boundaries.
Joe McKay, an attorney for the tribe who is representing Augare, had argued the Blackfeet has exclusive jurisdiction in prosecuting victimless crimes that involve enrolled tribal members.
But Strong cited cases in which other courts have allowed federal prosecutions of such crimes in ruling that tribes and the federal government have joint jurisdiction.
Strong previously set a trial date for Nov. 7.
McKay’s phone rang unanswered Tuesday. He did not return an email query for comment about the ruling.
Prosecutors are pursuing the case under the Assimilative Crimes Act, which allows them to apply state laws to offenses committed in federal enclaves that are not specifically addressed in federal law.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Weldon said in a hearing last week that the law includes Indian reservations.
Misdemeanor traffic offenses such as drunken driving are usually handled by tribal justice systems. But after several weeks of investigating whether to charge Augare with a crime, Blackfeet chief prosecutor Carl Pepion turned the case over to the federal prosecutors.
Tribal leaders have said Pepion was not authorized to do so. McKay warned that a ruling allowing Augare’s prosecution will subject other Indians to the possibility of dual prosecution by federal and tribal courts for misdemeanor crimes.
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