Oklahoma native land ruling affecting case jurisdiction

WYANDOTTE, Okla. – The McGirt vs Oklahoma Supreme Court decision ruled that certain major crimes committed within reservation boundaries must be prosecuted in federal court if a Native American is involved.

Less serious crimes involving a native person on tribal land will be handled in tribal courts. 

“Essentially any criminal case that goes through Ottawa County, they have to determine if the offender is native or non-native, and they have to determine if the victim is native or non-native. If either party is native then it can be affected by the McGirt decision,” said Lisa Arnold, Family Violence Prevention Program supervisor for Wyandotte Nation.

She said although it is not determined whether all Oklahoma tribes are included in this ruling, so far cases in Wyandotte Nation are being dismissed because of it.

Wyandotte Nation tribal police department Chief of Police Ronnie Gilmore said because of this ruling cases are being put on hold.

“Well as far as when the officers are responding to the calls, we aren’t seeing really any difference at all, we’re handling them as we always have, and then the complications from McGirt are happening in the courtroom. That’s where the cases, our local judges are ruling that these cases, in these cases that the state lacks jurisdiction to prosecute them,” Gilmore said.

Arnold added that the federal government hasn’t acknowledged that they have jurisdiction to prosecute them, causing these cases to fall into limbo.

“What happens is the victim has to wait to find out if it’s gonna go federal if it’s gonna go state, if it’s gonna go tribal, and they may not be picked up for a while. If it does go tribal, we haven’t had these cases, and so we can only sentence up to a year within Wyandotte Nation courts. Some of the tribes can sentence up to three years, so what happens is if you’ve got somebody with a really serious crime it gets pushed over to the tribal court and we can only sentence to that extent, they’re not getting the sentencing that they would’ve gotten when they still had it within the state court,” Arnold said.

Gilmore says that the ruling really is affected the victims of these crimes.

“Sometimes the offender is released, sometimes the offender remains in jail on other charges, sometimes we honestly don’t know, what is going on with them sometimes, it’s a difficult situation to be in, but the person that its by far the most difficult for would be the victims in these cases.”

Arnold sees these cases being let go first hand. 

“Right now those decisions have not been hammered out to determine if all the tribes are gonna be included, however, cases are being dismissed at a rapid rate…If a case is dismissed in the state court then they transfer it over to tribal court or federal court, depending on the severity of the case and where that offense occurred. So, when that happens, it has to be picked up.  What’s happened is the federal office is been inundated by cases because it’s counties all over the state that are dismissing these cases, and when that happens the feds have to pick up each one of those cases, process those cases, assign an investigator, and press charges again. So essentially these victims are having to go through the process all over again, not only that if it goes to the tribal court because the tribal courts weren’t taking care of these cases up until this date, now we’ve got extra cases that  we hadn’t had in the past, right now Wyandotte Nation we can’t  try cases on McGirt yet.”

And due to lack of jurisdiction and cases being dismissed, offenders committing these crimes could get away with them.

“We have had cases where the offenders that were incarcerated for a crime, the person who was incarcerated had argued in court that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear a case, the court agreed that they lacked  jurisdiction to hear a case and that offender was subsequently released from custody back into the public.”

Now, tribal police must wait to see if all tribes will be affected by this decision, and cases continue to be dismissed.