"My Office Will Work Until We Drop": Agencies Vow To Work Together On McGirt Cases

Aug 12, 2020

In a Tuesday press conference, Trent Shores, the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma, said his office has been working at an extraordinary pace.

The workload has doubled since the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, but they still have the same number of staff. In just one month, his office has returned 50 indictments that would have been handled by the Tulsa District Attorney's office before the decision.

Shores said reinforcements are on the way-volunteers from the Miami, Brooklyn and Pittsburgh offices are slated to help him and his staff with new cases.

"How much longer can we keep up this pace?" Shores asked rhetorically. "My office will work until we drop," he said, making a point that those who commit crimes will be prosecuted.

Shores said that Tulsa County now has a special "McGirt Docket." These are cases that are identified as having some questions about jurisdiction. Shores said 47 cases on that docket were dismissed last week and he expects another 85 to be dismissed in the coming weeks."

Our office is watching that court very closely," said Shores. Cases that get dismissed in county court are likely headed to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

WE'RE WORKING AROUND THE CLOCK

U.S. Attorney General William Barr put out a nationwide call for volunteers from other U.S. Attorney's Offices to do what Shores is calling a "federal detail" in Oklahoma. Shores said he has 22 criminal assistant U.S. attorneys and eight civil U.S. Attorneys.

On Tuesday, prosecutors from the Eastern District of New York, Southern District of Florida and the Western District of Pennsylvania will be helping out with the 113 cases Shores' office inherited. The U.S. Attorney's Office has retained about 60 of those. The rest are slated for Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s ' Tribal Court.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is also lending a hand to the Tulsa Police Department. Some TPD detectives and officers are being designated as task force officers for the FBI, which means they can enforce federal law. The Bureau of Indian Affairs hosted a special law enforcement commission training that allows them to deputize tribal officers and local officers that have a cross deputization agreement with the tribe to enforce federal law.

Muscogee (Creek) Nation Lighthorsemen and local police have had cross deputization agreements in place for a while now. That means that officers from the tribe and local police can operate in the same jurisdiction.

The goal is to get as many Tulsa Police officers and Tulsa County Sheriff's officers and any local law enforcement officer cross deputized with the Muskogee (Creek) Nation, and then deputized with the Bureau of Indian Affairs so that they can enforce federal law in Indian Country.

WORKING TOGETHER

The United States Attorney General for the Northern District of Oklahoma, Tulsa County District Attorney, Muscogee (Creek) Nation Assistant District Attorney and the Tulsa Police Deputy Chief answered questions in Tuesday's press conference about how their respective offices are handling criminal cases since the McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling last month.

They said their offices have been inundated with questions from the public about matters of public safety post-McGirt. U.S. Attorney Trent Shores said he wants the public to know one thing: their offices have been working together and cooperating with each other.

"The Supreme Court's decision changed our jurisdictional responsibilities, but what it did not change was our partnerships," said Shores.

Jurisdiction is a primary concern when it comes to prosecuting crimes. If a Native person commits a felony within the Muscogee (Creek) Nation's reservation boundaries, which includes parts of Tulsa, they are subject to federal prosecution. If the victim of a felony crime, such as murder or kidnapping is Native, the case is subject to federal prosecution. If a non-Native person commits a felony crime against a Native person, that case is also subject to federal prosecution.

Up until the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the McGirt v. Oklahoma case, all of these crimes were prosecuted in Oklahoma State courts. The nation’s highest court said because the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s reservation was never disestablished by Congress, these crimes are subject to federal prosecution.

If a Native person commits a crime against another Native person, that case may go to Tribal court. Tribes also reserve the right to prosecute felony cases in their own courts.

But there is a caveat.

"Congress has limited a tribal court's ability to sentence offenders," said Shores, who was speaking about the U.S. Major Crimes Act, a law that was passed in 1885.

"In some cases, it's a one-year maximum sentence. In certain special circumstances involving domestic violence, it may be up to three years, but that's why the partnership is so crucial," explained Shores. He said the partnership allows flexibility in where the crimes are prosecuted, which means people convicted of violent crimes could get longer sentences than those permitted in Tribal courts.

MCGIRT DECISION ISN'T A GET OUT OF JAIL FREE CARD

Now, the Tulsa Police Department has an extra layer of responsibility when they pull someone over for a traffic stop. They must ask if an offender is a citizen of a federally recognized Tribe.

That can get complicated when the person doesn't have their Tribal enrollment card in their possession. Shores recounted a recent case when a woman who was pulled over by Tulsa PD claimed she was Native American, but had no proof. The officer took her into custody and called the Tribal office to verify her citizenship. As it turned out, she was not a citizen.

Kunzweiler said his office will not tolerate people who attempt to fake Tribal citizenship.

"You're gonna put yourself in that group to try and claim that you're a member of that tribe, just so you can somehow try and escape justice? Shame on you for doing that," said Steve Kunzweiler, the Tulsa County District Attorney.

"Unless your ancestors registered under the Dawes Act, you are not eligible for membership in a federally recognized Indian tribe," said Kyle Haskins, Assistant Attorney General for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

While there is no specific penalty for trying to fake Tribal citizenship when stopped by law enforcement, it does create chaos. "Some people think McGirt is a get out of jail free card, all of a sudden, and that's not at all what it is," said Shores.

RESERVATION PROTECTION COMMITTEE

In an effort to deal with all of the questions that have arisen since the McGirt v. Oklahoma decision, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation has established the Mvskoke Reservation Protection Committee.

The newly formed committee — whose members were announced on Monday — will be looking at new economic development, issues of public safety and law enforcement, social services policies and government to government relations. Those are all things that the landmark Supreme Court ruling will have an effect on.

The committee also seeks to clarify any jurisdictional issues that have arisen from the ruling. The committee was created after the Muscogee (Creek) Nation decided not to move forward with an agreement in principle in the wake of last month's McGirt v. Oklahoma decision.

Jason Salsman, MCN's press secretary, said in order for the tribe to be able to prosecute cases, they need the resources that the Tulsa Police Department has.

"You wouldn't ask the Tulsa Police Department to be funded through a GoFundMe page," said Salsman speaking about how more resources will be needed to make sure Tribal courts and Lighthorsemen can do their jobs.