Obama signs ‘historic’ Tribal Law and Order Act

Gale Courey Toensing
7/30/10

WASHINGTON – In 1994, Lisa Marie Iyotte, an enrolled member of the White Clay People, was raped and violently beaten in her home on the Rosebud Sioux Tribe reservation. Her two young daughters witnessed the assault and hid in the bedroom.

Iyotte received medical treatment at an Indian health clinic, but no doctor talked to her about the rape.

Tribal police suspected a local man, but no federal investigator interviewed about the assault. Federal authorities declined to get involved because, they said, the attacker had not used a weapon.

A few months later, the same man assaulted another woman, and it wasn’t until he assaulted a child that he was caught and prosecuted. He was never prosecuted for raping Iyotte.

“If the Tribal Law and Order Act had existed 16 years ago, my story would be very different,” said Iyotte, who was overcome with emotion and tears as she struggled to describe the violent incident to a gathering of tribal leaders, elected officials and other dignitaries at the White House July 29, where President Obama signed the widely-hailed bill that will give American Indian nations more authority to fight crime on their lands. A video of the signing ceremony is available here.

“It’s for every survivor like Lisa who has never gotten their day in court, and for every family that feels like justice is beyond reach, and for every tribal community struggling to keep its people safe, that I’ll be signing the Tribal Law and Order Act into law today,” Obama said in remarks before the signing.

“And in doing so, I intend to send a clear message that all of our people – whether they live in our biggest cities or our most remote reservations – have the right to feel safe in their own communities, and to raise their children in peace, and enjoy the fullest protection of our laws,” Obama said.

The bill passed the Senate in June and the House passed it on July 21 by more than three-to-one. It was lauded by tribal leaders and organizations across the country.

Highlights of the Tribal Law and Order Act


Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), author of the Tribal Law and Order Act, provided the following highlights of the major provisions of the legislation:

• Evidence sharing and declinations: Federal officials have declined to prosecute more than 50 percent of violent crimes in Indian country, and a higher rate of sexual assaults. The bill will require the Department of Justice to maintain data on criminal declinations and share evidence with tribal justice officials when a case is declined.

• 3-year tribal court sentencing: Federal law limits tribal court authority to sentence offenders to no more than one year in prison, which limits their ability to provide justice to the victims and the tribal community. The bill establishes an option for tribes to increase sentencing authority for up to three years where a tribe provides added protections to defendants.

• Deputizing tribal police to enforce federal law: The complex jurisdictional arrangement in Indian country prevents tribal police from arresting offenders, even when a crime is committed in plain view. The bill will enhance the Special Law Enforcement Commission program, to deputize tribal police officers to enforce federal laws on Indian lands against all offenders.

• Tribal police access to criminal history records: Many tribal police have no access to criminal history records. As a result, when pulling over a suspect, the officer has no background on the person who is detained. The bill will provide tribal police greater access to criminal history databases such as the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

• Domestic and sexual violence: The bill will require tribal and federal officers serving Indian country to receive specialized training to interview victims of sexual assault and collect crime scene evidence. It also requires Indian Health Service facilities to implement consistent sexual assault protocols, and requires federal officials to provide documents and testimony gained in the course of their federal duties to aid in prosecutions before tribal courts.

• Programs to improve justice systems and prevent crime: The bill reauthorizes and improves programs designed to strengthen tribal court systems, tribal police departments and tribal corrections programs. It also updates laws to address high rates of alcohol and substance abuse, and programs to improve opportunities for at risk youth on Indian lands.

“It is unconscionable that crime rates in Indian country are more than twice the national average and up to 20 times the national average on some reservations,” the president said. “When one in three Native American women will be raped in their lifetimes, that is an assault on our national conscience; it is an affront to our shared humanity; it is something that we cannot allow to continue.”

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, who authored the law enforcement legislation and pushed for its passage called the Tribal Law and Order Act “historic.”

“This new law will save lives in Indian country,” said Dorgan, who attended the signing ceremony. “It will also dramatically improve the quality of life for millions of Native Americans who have lived far too long with unacceptable levels of violent crime in their communities. Jurisdictional confusion, lack of adequate law enforcement training, and a host of other structural roadblocks to effective law enforcement have created a crisis in law enforcement on many reservations where violent crime rates far exceed the national average. This legislation provides urgently needed help in clearing those roadblocks away.”

Enactment of the law enforcement legislation was one of Dorgan’s top priorities as chairman of the committee.

“The federal government has treaty and trust obligations to ensure public safety for Native Americans and for most of our history, we have failed to meet those obligations,” Dorgan said. “This new law will allow us to write a new and much better chapter in the history books regarding law enforcement in Indian communities.”

The legislation aims to improve all aspects of the justice system on American Indian reservations and clear up jurisdictional confusion among tribal, state and local law enforcement officials, which often gridlocks effective law enforcement in Indian country.

Walter Lamar, a citizen of the Blackfeet Nation of Montana and president and CEO of Lamar Associates, also hailed the act as crucial to quality of life issues on reservations.

“This is a monumental change for Indian country. I think the signing of the Tribal Law and Order Act ensures much needed recognition of the tremendous criminal justice gap faced by Indian country citizens,” Lamar said.

Lamar Associates is a well known firm offering consulting services in all areas of law enforcement and security. Lamar has more than 20 years in law enforcement and security as a former Special Agent for the FBI and Deputy Director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Law Enforcement.

“This is an important step, but what will be even more important are the appropriations that will allow this law to become a reality,” Lamar said.

But as significant as the passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act is, there are potential pitfalls, Lamar warned.

“One of the things that is very important for tribes is to become completely familiar with the act’s intent and purpose so that it will become a strong tool, but they must also be mindful of potential unintended consequences,” Lamar said.

Among the potential unintended consequences are increased costs to tribes to comply with some of the act’s mandatory provisions, such as providing legal counsel for criminal defendants and the expenses involved in housing prisoners.

National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) President Jefferson Keel, who also attended the White House signing ceremony, said the legislation will significantly enhance tribal law enforcement and the coordination of enforcement with United States Government

“Today, by enacting the Tribal Law and Order Act, President Obama and the United States government reaffirmed its federal trust responsibility to work with tribal nations to strengthen our governments, our people and our communities,” Keel said. “We will use the tools in the Tribal Law and Order Act to crack down on crime and make our communities safer.”

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