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Little River Court of Appeals Upholds Conviction of Appellate Justice January 27, 2008

Posted by rezjudicata in Little River Band of Ottawa Indians Tribal Court of App, Tribal Courts.
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Champagne v. Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, No. 06-178-AP (Little Riv. B. App. June __ , 2007)

Issue(s): Jurisdiction > Criminal Jurisdiction >> Tribal Members; Jurisdiction > Criminal Jurisdiction >> Indian Country; Incorporation of State Law > Traditional Tribal Law >> Crimes; Little River Band Constitutional Law > Right to Jury >> Punishment

As an employee of the Little River Band, Justice Champagne often used his personal vehicle to accomplish work-related errands. While on a personal detour one day, Justice Champagne collided with another motorist. Justice Champagne sought reimbursement from the Tribe for his loss claiming he was headed to a client’s home. Caught in the lie, the Tribe prosecuted and convicted Justice Champagne for attempting to defraud the Tribe. Given that the Tribe incorporated the attempt statute from the Michigan criminal code, was the conviction proper?

Yes, said the Little River Court of Appeals. Justice Champagne first argued that the Tribe had no jurisdiction over the case. Subject to a few narrow limitations, the Little River Band Constitution grants its court jurisdiction over all crimes committed on reservation and trust lands. Because the crime occurred on reservation land, the case fell within the scope of the Courts authority. The Tribal Council also held the power to regulate Justice Champagne’s conduct because he is a member of the Tribe. Lastly, nothing in federal law prohibited the Tribe from prosecuting Justice Champagne. As an Indian, Justice Champagne fell within the Tribe’s inherent authority to regulate crimes committed in Indian Country. Thus, the trial court had the authority to try Justice Champagne.

The Justice next argued that his conviction could not stand because a jury did not decide his fate. Under the Little River Band Constitution, defendants have the right to a jury trial when the crime may carry a sentence of imprisonment. Presumably, fraud convictions can result in incarceration. The Tribal Council, however, has stated that the right doesn’t attach if the prosecutor informs the court and defendant, before trial, that she will not seek jail time. The Court found this interpretation consistent with the Constitution. The prosecutor sought only a fine and therefore the right to a jury never matured.

In his final argument, Justice Champagne urged that, by adopting Michigan criminal law, the Tribal Council violated tribal customary law. Adopting the trial court’s reasoning, the Court of Appeals rejoined that the Council cannot diminish sovereignty simply by incorporating foreign law. Wise or foolish, the Council had paramount authority to make this decision. In a similar vein, the Justice argued that Ottawa customs and traditions and the indigenous criminal statute do not recognize the crime of “attempt.” And because those traditions are meant to make parties whole, the attempt statute was a derogation of traditional law. Recognizing the high importance of respecting customary tribal law, the Court said that traditional law actually cut against Justice Champagne’s argument. No community is made whole by excusing the Justice’s attempt to defraud the community. The attempt statute was valid and validly enacted. Therefore, the Court upheld Justice Champagne’s conviction.

[Again, many thanks to Professor Fletcher for providing a copy of this opinion.]

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