GREAT FALLS — A Blackfeet tribal leader and state senator pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday to drunken driving, reckless driving and obstruction of a peace officer in a case that tested the ability of the U.S. government to prosecute Indians for misdemeanor offenses on tribal lands.
Shannon Augare told U.S. Magistrate Judge Keith Strong he accepted responsibility for the May 26 traffic stop in which he fled a Glacier County sheriff’s deputy after saying the deputy had no jurisdiction to pull him over on the Blackfeet reservation.
Augare apologized to law enforcement, his colleagues on the Montana Senate and the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council and his family.
“I respect the law and I believe it’s absolutely right to accept responsibility when I’m wrong,” he said.
Strong ordered Augare to pay $1,250 in fines, a special assessment of $30 and to attend a substance-abuse treatment class. He received no jail time.
Augare entered his guilty plea after Strong rejected an argument by attorney Joe McKay earlier in the hearing that Augare’s October conviction in Blackfeet tribal court on the same charges should end the federal government’s jurisdiction in the case.
McKay earlier this year argued that the Blackfeet tribe has exclusive jurisdiction over misdemeanor crimes committed by Indians on the reservation. After Strong ruled that the federal government and tribal government share jurisdiction, Augare said he was ready to accept responsibility but he wanted to do so in tribal court, McKay said.
Blackfeet Chief Judge Allie Edwards gave Augare a suspended jail sentence and a partially suspended fine that will be completely suspended if he spends $200 on toys for the reservation’s Toys for Tots drive.
McKay argued Thursday that because the tribal court proceedings concluded first, that should end the case in federal court, too. He cited the law under which Augare was being prosecuted that said federal jurisdiction does not apply to any Indian who already has been punished according to the law of the tribe.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan Weldon argued that provision of the law does not apply because the federal government had charged Augare first, and the federal court keeps its jurisdiction regardless of any action taken afterward by the tribal court.
Strong commended Augare for taking responsibility for his actions in tribal court, but ruled in favor of Weldon.
McKay then entered a guilty plea for Augare, telling the judge their intention was to end the case today so that Augare could move forward.
McKay said afterward that he believes this case was a setback for tribal sovereignty and that an overreaching U.S. attorney’s office had extended its jurisdiction into Indian Country like never before.
He questioned the resources prosecutors expended over a “petty case” when so many violent crimes go unsolved on the reservation.
“This case was never about Shannon Augare,” he said. “This was about our tribal sovereignty and jurisdiction — period.”
U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter dismissed the idea that his office was impeding on tribal sovereignty, and invited McKay to provide him with any information about unprosecuted violent crimes on the reservation.
This case was much more than a simple DUI, Cotter said. Augare’s standing as a tribal council member overseeing the court system made it comparable to a corruption case, he said.
“We took this case because no one else (in the tribal justice system) took the case,” Cotter said. “It certainly appeared that Augare was using his position to influence the investigation and his prosecution to his advantage to avoid criminal culpability.”
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