The Supreme Court rules against a member of the Navajo Nation

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Monday that Native Americans prosecuted in certain tribal courts can also be prosecuted in federal court for the same incident, which could result in longer sentences.

The 6-3 ruling is consistent with an earlier ruling from the 1970s that said the same thing about a more common type of tribal court.

The case before the judges involved a member of the Navajo Nation, Merle Denezpi, who was accused of rape. He served nearly five months in prison after being charged with assault and assault in a Court of Indian Offenses, a court that deals exclusively with alleged Native American offenders.

Under federal law, courts can generally only impose sentences of up to one year for Indian crimes. The man was later arraigned in federal court and sentenced to 30 years in prison. He said the constitution’s “double jeopardy” clause should have prevented the second prosecution.

But the judges disagreed.


“Denezpi’s single act resulted in separate prosecutions for violations of a tribal ordinance and a federal law. Because the tribe and federal government are distinct sovereigns, these “offenses are not equal,” Judge Amy Coney Barrett wrote for a majority of the court. “Denezpi’s second charge therefore did not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause.”

The Biden administration had supported that outcome, as had several states, which said barring federal prosecutors in similar cases could allow defendants to avoid harsh sentences.

The case before the judges concerns a tribal court system that has become increasingly rare over the past century. Native American crime courts were created in the late 19th century when the federal government’s policy toward Native Americans was to encourage assimilation. Prosecutors are federal officials answerable to federal agencies, not tribal agencies.


However, federal policy toward Native Americans changed in the mid-1930s to emphasize a greater respect for the native ways of life of the tribes. As part of this, the government has encouraged tribes to set up their own tribal courts, and the number of Indian crime courts has steadily declined. Today there are five regional Native American crimes courts serving 16 tribes in Colorado, Oklahoma, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. They are generally tribes with a small number of members or limited resources. There is nationwide more than 570 state-recognized tribes.

The court said in 1978 that the double jeopardy clause did not prevent the federal government from prosecuting a native person in federal court after a tribal court prosecution. Therefore, the only question for the court this time was whether the rule should be different for Indian courts of criminal offences.


In July 2017, Denezpi traveled with a female member of the Navajo Nation to Towaoc, Colorado, which is part of the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. There Denezpi raped the woman.

Denezpi was first charged in an Indian crimes tribunal on charges including assault and assault. He eventually agreed to a so-called Alford plea in the case, admitting no guilt but acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence that he was likely to be convicted in court. He was sentenced to 140 days in prison. His indictment in federal court followed.

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https://www.local10.com/news/politics/2022/06/13/supreme-court-rules-against-navajo-nation-member/ The Supreme Court rules against a member of the Navajo Nation

Sarah Y. Kim

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