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Federal Criminal Law

The United States Constitution, treaties, federal statutes, executive orders, and court decisions establish and define the unique legal and political relationship that exists between the United States and Indian tribes. Federal laws vest the Department of Justice with primary jurisdiction over most felonies that occur on Indian lands in most states. As such, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Attorneys' Offices are the primary federal law enforcement agencies responsible for investigating and prosecuting most serious felony crimes that occur in Indian country including homicides, aggravated assaults, sex offenses, and large scale theft or embezzlement. Other federal law enforcement agencies are also active in Indian country; for example, the Drug Enforcement Administration (drug offenses), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (firearms offenses and arson), United States Marshals Service (fugitives and sex offender investigations), and Customs and Border Protection (border offenses). Most common less serious misdemeanor crimes are usually investigated and prosecuted by tribal law enforcement agencies. Tribal police and tribal courts handle the majority of criminal offenses occurring in Indian country and often do so in ways that are appropriate given the priorities, needs, and resources of each particular tribal community.

Federal Bureau of Investigation
The Federal Bureau of Investigation provides Special Agents who investigate serious felony crimes in Indian country.  The FBI has a number of field offices located on or near Indian reservations.  In addition, the FBI is home to the Indian Country Special Crimes Unit (ICSCU).  The mission of the ICSCU is to develop and implement strategies to address the most egregious crime problems in Indian Country where the FBI has responsibility and to support joint investigative efforts with the BIA, Tribal law enforcement agencies, and Safe Trails Task Force personnel.  The ICSCU manages personnel resources, procures services, funds specialized equipment to enhance FBI investigations, coordinates with the FBI Office of Victim Assistance and other federal agencies, and provides quality training to law enforcement personnel to ensure that Indian Country criminal investigations are conducted in a consistent manner which will provide effective law enforcement services.

United States Attorneys' Offices
The vast majority of criminal prosecutions for felony crimes committed within Indian country are handled by United States Attorneys' Offices. The designated Tribal Liaison within United States Attorneys' Offices may be contacted regarding issues that arise in Indian Country. The United States Attorneys' Offices have identified five basic priorities on which to focus in Indian country: (1) homeland security, (2) violent crimes, (3) Indian gaming, (4) white collar crime, and (5) jurisdictional issues.

Tribal Justice Agencies
As sovereigns recognized by the United States to have certain powers of self-government, many tribes have established their own criminal justice programs.  Most of these programs receive at least partial funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and/or the Department of Justice.  Tribal governments often have some combination of a police department, criminal investigations unit, crime victim services office, court, detention facility, and/or a probation/parole department.  Characteristics of tribal criminal justice agencies can vary.  For example, most tribal police departments are relatively small with less than 25 officers; however, at least one tribe employs over 300 police officers.  Great variation also exists with other tribal criminal justice agencies.

Bureau of Indian Affairs
The Bureau of Indian Affairs – Office of Justice Services (formerly known as the Office of Law Enforcement Services) provides law enforcement and corrections services to tribes which are subject to federal criminal jurisdiction, but have yet to establish their own tribal law enforcement or corrections programs.  The Office of Justice Services also provides training at the Indian Police Academy (located in Artesia, New Mexico), assists with tribal court development, provides program inspections, and conducts internal affairs investigations.



Updated September 27, 2022