Ute Tribe stakes new legal claim to ‘Indian Country’
Courts • Uintah, Duchesne counties reject tribal position of “exclusive” jurisdiction.
Published: May 25, 2013 03:27PM
Updated: December 7, 2013 11:32PM

A long-simmering feud between the Ute Tribe and local authorities in eastern Utah has reignited into a flurry of suits and countersuits aimed at settling the vexing question of who holds jurisdiction in “Indian Country.”

In papers filed last month in U.S. District Court, the tribe alleges Uintah and Duchesne counties, along with state and municipal officials, are unlawfully questioning and detaining tribal members. By practicing law enforcement in and around the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation, nontribal officers routinely violate a 2000 court settlement resolving a jurisdictional fight dating back decades, filings say.

“In the past few years, the State and particularly the local counties have escalated these ongoing violations of federal law, sending their police onto our Reservation to harass and unlawfully arrest and detain our Tribal members, demonstrating that the State and counties do not respect the federal court decision or the Tribe’s sovereign rights,” the Ute tribal business committee said in a news statement. “They are trying to disestablish our Reservation and take away our homeland, which we have maintained since time immemorial.”

Besides illustrating severe tensions between the counties and Utah’s namesake tribe, the dispute is reverberating through the highest levels of state government. The governor and attorney general’s offices are worried how the matter could affect the state’s jurisdictional interests.

“This lawsuit is huge in terms of the ground it encompasses and the issues it raises. It’s a major, major claim,” Lt. Gov. Greg Bell told the state’s Constitutional Defense Council on Tuesday.

At a June 24 hearing in Salt Lake City, U.S. District Judge Bruce Jenkins will field arguments on the tribe’s motion for an injunction.

Meanwhile, non-tribal businesses serving the Uinta Basin’s thriving oil-and-gas industry are caught in the crossfire. The tribe is moving to shut them down unless they comply with a new tribal permitting process even though they don’t operate on tribal land, according to suits filed in state court last month.

To support its case, the tribe filed numerous declarations by members who say they have been detained on minor traffic stops and other trivial matters, then treated rudely or roughly when they asked questions.

Timothy Ignacio, for example, says a Duchesne County sheriff’s deputy impounded his truck for having an expired tag. On a hunting trip with two companions, he was on tribal trust land and had just reported a deer poaching incident in Antelope Canyon. When Ignacio identified himself as a tribal member, the deputy replied, “If you don’t have your tribal ID on you, you’re not considered a tribal member,” and noted he was traveling on a county road.

In their own filings, Uintah and Duchesne counties flatly reject the tribe’s contention that their deputies have no business conducting traffic stops and investigating crimes on or off tribal land.

Uintah County Sheriff Jeffrey Paul Merrell called the demand “unwarranted, intrusive and completely unworkable.” In a declaration filed Wednesday, he contends all land within the county’s boundaries falls within the sheriff’s jurisdiction. Particular crimes do fall outside it, but that cannot be determined without some investigation to determine the tribal status of the victim and suspect and whether the incident took place on tribal lands, Merrell wrote.

Herein lies the confusion. The tribe says it holds “exclusive” jurisdiction within the historic boundaries of the Uncompahgre and Uintah Valley reservations, established in the 19th century and later whittled away. This area stretches from the Strawberry Valley to the Colorado state line and includes much of the 1.3 million acres of tribal trust lands scattered around the Uinta Basin. The resulting patchwork of land ownership complicates jurisdictional questions.

“Any given county road can cross numerous parcels of varying acreage. Thus it is basically impossible for my office to determine land status at the point of initial contact,” the sheriff wrote. “For my office to accomplish its vital role of maintaining peace and order within the county, it must have the ability and jurisdiction to patrol and investigate, and, where circumstances permit, prosecute offenders for offenses committed within the county.”

In “cease and desist” letters to the counties, however, tribal business chairwoman Irene Cuch said the tribe may have granted easements across tribal land for county roads, but that in no way confers criminal jurisdiction.

The two sides do agree on one thing. Circumstances have changed to the point that the 2000 settlement needs to be set aside so the original dispute can be re-litigated.

bmaffly@sltrib.com