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Improving Public Safety In Tribal Lands - March 2012

The Department of Justice has renewed its commitment to ensuring security and justice on tribal lands, and here in the Eastern District of Michigan, we have taken this commitment to heart.  In light of the alarming rates of violence in tribal communities, particularly against women and children, prosecution in Indian Country in the Eastern District of Michigan has increased substantially over the past two years.

Through the dedicated efforts of lawyers and professional staff in our Bay City branch office, our criminal prosecutions in tribal matters has increased from five cases in 2009 to 14 cases in 2010 to 26 cases in 2011.  Lead Tribal Prosecutor Roy Kranz and Assistant U.S. Attorney Libby Dill have partnered with members of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe to prosecute criminal violations occurring on the reservation in Mt. Pleasant.  Among the cases we prosecuted last year:

  1. A defendant was convicted of 2nd degree murder for intentionally strangling his sister to death and then flooding the kitchen where the murder took place to conceal his crime.
  1. A defendant was convicted of attempted murder after intentionally strangling and punching a 23-month-old victim, who sustained life-threatening injuries and suffered a stroke.  Defendant tried to conceal his crime by ordering his girlfriend, the victim’s mother, to lie to police, providing him a false alibi.  Defendant was sentenced to 365 months in prison.
  1. A defendant pleaded guilty to assault with intent to do bodily harm and witness tampering.  The defendant kicked and stomped his girlfriend multiple times in the head.  After the assault, defendant posted threatening messages on Facebook that he knew the eyewitnesses would see.  He also instructed a fellow inmate, who was being released, to find the victim and tell her not to report the assault.

In addition to these and other felony cases, we also launched a ticket docket for misdemeanor offenses occurring within reservation boundaries.  Chief Judge Gerald E. Rosen signed an administrative order granting authorization for the tribal police to participate in the federal misdemeanor program coordinated by the Central Violations Bureau, which allows tribal officers to issue tickets to non-Indians for misdemeanors committed on the reservation.  Between August and December 2011, 18 tickets were issued against non-Indian offenders for misdemeanor offenses involving Indian victims within reservation boundaries.

Besides prosecuting cases, our operational plan includes working with members of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe to meet the needs of victims of crime.  A multi-disciplinary team is being formed to combat child abuse and domestic and sexual violence offenses against women.  Our Tribal Liaison AUSA Laura Sagolla and Victim-Witness Coordinator Sandy Palazzolo are working with tribal law enforcement, social services professionals, victim-witness advocates, prosecutors, and FBI agents to form a multi-disciplinary team to coordinate the investigation and prosecution of domestic violence cases from the time of first reporting.   A formal protocol is now underway.

Our success in enforcing the law in tribal lands is a result of improved communication between federal law enforcement and members of the tribe.  The U.S. Attorney meets with the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal Council twice a year to report on our work and to receive input for priorities and public safety programs on the reservation.  In addition, we conduct quarterly law enforcement meetings with Tribal Police, the Tribal Prosecutor, the FBI, and city and county officers.  AUSAs also meet regularly with Tribal Police and the Tribal Prosecutor to discuss specific cases and law enforcement issues.

Training is an important part of improving public safety in tribal lands.  In 2011, the U.S. Attorney’s Office conducted three training sessions, which resulted in the certification of 140 tribal, state, and local officers to enforce federal law within reservation boundaries.  Additionally, Law Enforcement and Community Coordinators from the U.S. Attorney’s Offices in the Eastern and Western Districts of Michigan have jointly provided training to tribal law enforcement personnel on use of force, federal report writing, and methamphetamine awareness, among other topics.

People sometimes ask whether “Indian” is an appropriate term in 21st Century America.  While the term “Indian” dates back to an erroneous description made by European settlers, it is still used in the law because it is a legal term of art contained in the federal statutes to describe a subset of Native Americans who are members of a federally recognized tribe, which gives them a particular legal status.

Our efforts in the Eastern District of Michigan are part of a broader effort the Department of Justice is bringing to improve public safety in tribal communities.  The 2011 passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act enhances our ability to bring cases.  The new DOJ Office of Tribal Justice is providing a national focus on public safety in Indian Country.  The Civil Rights Division has established an Indian Working Group, taking meaningful steps to improve the federal government’s efforts to address tribal justice issues.   As U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr, has stated, “The public safety challenges we face in Indian Country will not be solved by a single grant or a single piece of legislation.  There is no quick fix.”  But the recent efforts by the Department of Justice “signal the U.S. government’s commitment to ensuring peace, security, opportunity and -- above  all -- justice on tribal lands.”

Barbara L. McQuade
United States Attorney
Eastern District of Michigan

Updated March 20, 2015