In a case out of North Dakota, a court majority said the federal government may charge a suspect with essentially the same crime as that charged by an Indian tribe, when the tribe is acting as a sovereign authority, without violating double jeopardy.
The Constitution bars double jeopardy -- punishing someone twice for the same offense. But the Constitution does not bar prosecutions by "separate sovereigns."
The ruling came in the case of an Indian member of a tribe; it would not affect any of the tens of thousands of non-Indian visitors to tribal casinos each year.
Also Monday, in a case out of Washington state, the Supreme Court said it would hear argument next term on whether an arrest is "reasonable" if the reason an officer stopped someone is not closely related to the eventual crime charged.
Both cases are part of a stream considered by the Supreme Court over the last decade. Many of the decisions in the cases have been minor, but collectively they define how much power police have over the public.
In the North Dakota case, Billy Jo Lara is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in the north-central section of the state.
Lara married a member of a different tribe, the Spirit Lake Tribe, and lived with his wife and children on the Spirit Lake Reservation, also in North Dakota.
But Lara did not live peacefully, according to court records. "After several incidents of serious misconduct, the Spirit Lake Tribe issued an order excluding him from the reservation," Justice Stephen Breyer said in Monday's majority opinion. "Lara ignored the order; federal officers stopped him; and he struck one of the arresting officers."
The Spirit Lake Tribe charged Lara for "violence to a policeman." He pleaded guilty and served 90 days in jail.
However, the U.S. government then charged him with assaulting a federal officer -- essentially the same violation for which he had already spent 90 days in jail.
The government argued that the new charge did not constitute double jeopardy.
Prosecutors pointed out that the Supreme Court has ruled that the tribes are acting as "separate sovereigns" when charging their own members with a crime. The high court has also ruled that no tribe has an inherent or sovereign authority to prosecute a "non-member Indian."
But shortly after the latter ruling, Congress enacted a law specifically allowing a tribe to prosecute Indian members of a different tribe.
In ruling for the tribe and reversing the lower courts Monday, Breyer said the Spirit Lake Tribe was using its inherent power as a separate authority to prosecute Lara, and as such the tribal prosecution was not an exercise of federal power.
Therefore, Breyer said, the separate federal prosecution did not amount to double jeopardy.
Justice David Souter dissented, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia.
In the Washington state case, driver Jerome Alford filed suit against two state troopers, claiming his rights had been violated.
While on night duty, Trooper Joi Haner saw Alford's vehicle stopped behind a disabled vehicle on the highway.
When Alford walked back to his car, he told Haner he had given the driver of the disabled car a flashlight to fix a flat tire.
Alford then left. Then the trooper checked with the occupants of the car, learned they believed Alford was a police officer because he had "wig-wag" headlights -- lights that flashed alternately on and off.
Haner then followed Alford and pulled him over. Besides the wig-wag lights, Alford had a police-band radio tuned into the Kitsap County Sheriff's Office communications frequency.
Alford also had a microphone attached to the radio, a police scanner and handcuffs, according to court records.
When Haner's supervisor arrived, he noticed Alford had an audiotape recorder on his seat. Alford was subsequently arrested for taping a private conversation without the consent of everyone involved.
Deputies also looked at charges of obstructing an officer and impersonating an officer, but finally struck with just the privacy violation.
On appeal, however, a Washington state court ruled that a conversation with state police was a public, not a private communication.
When the only charged was dismissed, Alford brought federal civil rights and state false arrest claims against the trooper and his supervisor.
The troopers then asked the Supreme Court to hear the case.
The cases asks whether an arrest violates the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures if an officer has probable cause to charge one offense, but that charge is not closely related to the offense "articulated" by the officer at the time of the arrest.
In other action Monday, the Supreme Court refused to review an Indiana case in which a state police officer claimed religious bias.
Officer Benjamin Endres was assigned a full-time position as a Gaming Commission agent at a private casino. Endres said that violated his religion, and offered to take any other assignment, but was fired.
A lower court ruled for the state. Endres then asked the Supreme Court to review the case and answer whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires a law enforcement agency or similar employer to reasonably accommodate an employee's religious faith when making assignments.
The justices rejected the case Monday in a one-line order.
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