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Native Americans Face Legal Challenges In Domestic Violence Cases


As of this month, Native American tribes across the country are allowed to prosecute crimes against women in their own courts, even if the perpetrator is non-native. Over the last year, three tribes have been piloting ways to do this that honor both tribal and federal law. Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ has this report.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: Up until recently, the only thing a tribal officer could do to a non-native perpetrator is drive him to the edge of the reservation and drop him off. Pascua Yaqui tribal police Chief Michael Valenzuela drives to a Circle K where officers often took them.

MICHAEL VALENZUELA: You're kind of powerless. You can still physically do your job. You can go there and you can detain them. You can hold them, go through the procedures, but at the end of the day, you have to let them go.

MORALES: The tiny reservation just outside Tucson has been plagued by domestic violence, and many of the cases involve people outside of the tribe. Police-officer-turned-victims-advocate Canada Valenzuela says she was disheartened. She couldn't look victims in the eye.

CANADA VALENZUELA: We would always hear why can't you guys arrest them? Why is he getting away with it? You know he's just going to come back and you guys - he knows you guys can't do nothing.

MORALES: And when the children see that dad can hit mom and there is no consequence, Valenzuela says that sends them the wrong message.

C. VALENZUELA: There's some, especially the boys, who say, well, he's just going to come back, and she's going to get what she deserves - no.

MORALES: In 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court stripped tribal authority over non-natives in Oliphant versus Suquamish Indian Tribe. Justice William Rehnquist wrote non-natives were aliens to the reservation. They didn't vote or live there, so they couldn't be tried there. Pascua Yaqui Judge Melvin Stoof never understood that legal rationale.

MELVIN STOOF: And it was always a red herring for me because if you're a New Yorker and you commit a crime in California, California doesn't ask if you're registered to vote there or if you live there or reside there or have connections there. You're subject to the criminal jurisdiction of California.

MORALES: The U.S. Attorney's office has jurisdiction to prosecute cases in Indian country if the violence is severe. But it still declines a third of all cases presented. Congress changed that in 2013 when it passed the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act. That gave tribes the authority to prosecute some non-natives in tribal court and sentence them up to nine years in jail. Pascua Yaqui Attorney General Fred Urbina says the new law is having a great impact, but it's not enough. It only protects women from their husbands or boyfriends, not from strangers. And it doesn't include children.

FRED URBINA: In 19 of our cases, we had 18 children involved; the average age being around 4 years old. Some of them were assaulted. A lot of times it was the children that were calling to report these domestic violence incidents.

MORALES: The Justice Department chose the Pascua Yaqui to pilot the program because they have state certified judges and lawyers and a brand new courthouse and jail. Police Chief Michael Valenzuela says the old jail was a two-bedroom house with a cage.

M. VALENZUELA: In the past, if someone was in jail people could go outside and knock on the window and talk - yeah and they did. We'd have to shoo them away. It was not safe. We had people assaulted.

MORALES: Now, thanks to federal stimulus money, they have a 65,000-square-foot justice complex.

M. VALENZUELA: How many restrooms, Hector?

HECTOR: Thirty-four.

M. VALENZUELA: Thirty-four.

MORALES: And 20 beds to house both native and non-native inmates. For NPR News, I'm Laura Morales in Flagstaff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.