Public Safety

Justices: State courts have jurisdiction over crimes on Meskwaki Settlement involving nontribal members

Ruling overturns Tama County magistrate's dismissal of charges

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DES MOINES — The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday overruled a Tama County magistrate’s order dismissing trespassing and drug charges against a Marshalltown woman because he misinterpreted a recent federal law regarding the state’s jurisdiction on the Meskwaki Settlement near Tama.

Prosecutors had appealed the dismissal because the ruling would have had broad impact for every state that has tribal lands, according to the ruling.

The federal law changed in 2018 regarding the state’s jurisdiction over offenses committed by or against Native Americans on the Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi settlement.

But the change didn’t include crimes committed by non-Native Americans on the settlement. State courts still have jurisdiction over those, the justices ruled.

Sixth Judicial District Magistrate Richard Vander Mey on Jan. 1 dismissed trespassing, possession of drug paraphernalia and violation of a no-contact order against Jessica Stanton, 46. She was arrested by Meskwaki Nation police Dec. 13.

Vander Mey, in his ruling, said his understanding of the law was that it prohibits tribal officers, as well as other state law enforcement, from filing state criminal charges for crimes on the settlement, regardless of race or ethnic background.

Assistant Iowa Attorney General Aaron Rogers, in the appeal, argued the state has always had criminal jurisdiction over non-settlement members’ crimes — victimless or between non-members — committed on tribal lands.

As to Stanton’s charges, neither the Meskwaki court nor federal court has the jurisdiction to prosecute these crimes, which are considered victimless. The state has exclusive criminal jurisdiction.

The Sac and Fox Tribe sovereignty doesn’t give its tribal courts the power to criminally prosecute non-members of a tribe, Rogers stated.

The court said Vander Mey’s ruling that “any” charges for conduct on the settlement can only be pursued in tribal court or federal court is incorrect. A “law enforcement vacuum” would result if tribal courts and state courts didn’t have jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-Native Americans.

The court noted some issues in the Stanton case remain unclear, such as whether Stanton and the protected person in the no-contact order are non-Native Americans, but Vander Mey didn’t attempt to find out. He just dismissed the charges, saying the state didn’t have jurisdiction.

The court reversed the dismissal of the charges against Stanton and sent the case to district court.

The court also tossed out Vander Mey’s order that directed Tama County Sheriff Dennis Kucera to consult with Tama County Attorney Brent Heeren to determine whether defendants like Stanton should be in a county jail and that tribal judges should tell tribal police officers to “cease and desist” from charging individuals under Iowa laws.

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