Court restores state hunting enforcement in Indian Country 4-24-07

Associated Press Writer

- The Utah Supreme Court on Tuesday restored the state's right to enforce hunting laws in “Indian Country,” overturning a 2005 state appeals court decision.

In a 5-0 decision, the justices also reinstated the poaching convictions of three men, saying “the state has jurisdiction over crimes committed in Indian Country when a non-Indian commits a victimless crime.”

The decision restores state hunting regulations to their original form, Utah Assistant Attorney General Joanne Slotnik said.

“Since the Court of Appeals decision, the state has been unable to enforce state hunting regulations. As of today, it can,” Slotnik said.

A telephone message left by The Associated Press for Michael Humiston, the attorney who represents the three hunters was not immediately returned.

The dispute began in 2002, when a boy shot and killed a trophy deer while hunting with his father without a state permit or a tag for the animal. Rickie L. Reber and his son said they were members of an obscure Indian tribe and didn't need one.

Reber was convicted of third-degree felony aiding and assisting in the wanton destruction of wildlife in 8th District Court. His son was adjudicated in juvenile court.

In a separate but similar case, Tex Williams Atkins and Steven Paul Thunehurst were convicted of misdemeanors and joined in Reber's appeal.

In their appeal, the three argued that the state lacked the authority to regulate their Indian Country hunting.

The Court of Appeals agreed and overturned their convictions. The decision stripped state authorities of regulatory authority over hunting and fishing.

“In the interim, there's been a real patchwork of law enforcement,” Slotnik said. “Since the Court of Appeals ruling, you haven't needed a state hunting permit on those 2 million acres. Now you do.”

In the decision written by Associate Chief Justice Michael J. Wilkins, justices said Congress defines Indian Country as a geographical distinction that incorporates the historical boundaries of tribal lands, but isn't necessarily solely owned by a tribe. The state, therefore, retains legal jurisdiction over crimes committed by non-Indians, the court said.

Justices also found that Reber and his son were not members of an American Indian tribe and could not claim protection under federal laws.