10th Circuit Court says Utah counties can’t prosecute people for crimes on tribal lands

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DENVER — In a strongly worded ruling handed down from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Utah counties are prohibited from prosecuting people for crimes committed within tribal borders.

In the ruling issued Tuesday, the judges of the 10th Circuit blasted Uintah and Wasatch county officials for continuing to challenge what they declared settled: that the counties do not have the authority to prosecute for crimes on sovereign lands. The court said it ruled as much before, and declared it “pretty surprising when a State and several of its counties need a reminder.”

The case involves Lesa Jenkins, a Ute-Ouray tribal member, who was prosecuted in Wasatch County Justice Court for alleged traffic offenses within a national forest area that the 10th Circuit Court said was recovnized as Indian country. The tribe sued, asking to halt her prosecution.

That brought counterclaims, the court said, from Uintah and Duchesne counties, who claimed the tribe was infringing on their authority. Ultimately, the 10th Circuit came down on the side of the Ute-Ouray tribe.

“A system of law that places any value on finality — as any system of law worth its salt must — cannot allow intransigent litigants to challenge decisions year after year, decade after decade, until they wear everyone else out,” the judges wrote. “Even — or perhaps especially — when those intransigent litigants turn out to be public officials, for surely those charged with enforcing the law should know this much already.”

The appeals court sent the case back to a federal judge in Utah to issue a preliminary injunction, barring prosecutors from charging people for crimes committed on tribal lands.

Read the 10th Circuit Court ruling here: