Cherokee Nation upgrades criminal codes; redirects $10M for marshals, courts, prosecutors

BY STAFF REPORTS
12/20/2020 02:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH – Cherokee Nation officials are updating the tribe’s criminal code and proposing to repurpose $10 million from the general budget for necessary upgrades following the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt v. Oklahoma ruling.   

The Tribal Council on Dec. 14 unanimously approved overhauling the criminal code based on recommendations from the Commission for the Protection of Cherokee Nation Sovereignty.
 
Many of the CN’s criminal laws were updated and made consistent with Oklahoma laws. Other updates were made to ensure that any cases dismissed by state courts as a result of the McGirt decision can be refiled in the CN courts. 

“As we celebrate the McGirt decision and our sovereignty, we must also remain prepared to continue to protect public safety while addressing new legal challenges. Updating our criminal code will improve law enforcement on our reservation, and ensure that we are ready when criminal cases are dismissed in state courts,” said Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “We also want to maintain order and consistency and avoid any confusion among the public and law enforcement officers.” 

The revised criminal code makes it a felony to commit domestic abuse against a pregnant woman, and updates assault/battery domestic abuse laws. Other updates include clarifying penalties and fines for felonies and misdemeanors committed in the CN reservation. 

“There’s a lot at stake after this court ruling, and it’s important our Cherokee Nation laws reflect these changes and challenges ahead,” said Tribal Councilor Mike Shambaugh, who is police chief in Jay. “Our goal is to maintain our sovereignty and close jurisdictional gaps while ensuring continued justice.” 

CN criminal code regarding the Controlled Substance Act is now more consistent with state law, so tribal citizens will not be penalized for acts that are legal under Oklahoma law. This will help CN citizens and business owners in the cannabis industry avoid tribal prosecution if they are fully complying with Oklahoma law, officials said.

Also, on Dec. 15, the Executive & Finance Committee voted to allocate $10 million in additional spending on law enforcement, prosecution and courts.

“This funding is necessary to ensure that the Cherokee Nation’s government is prepared to deal with the increase in criminal cases expected as a result of the McGirt decision,” Attorney General Sara Hill said. “The Cherokee Nation takes seriously its responsibility to address jurisdictional or enforcement gaps on the Cherokee Nation’s reservation, and is committed to doing so in a way that protects and preserves our hard-fought sovereignty.”

The Tribal Council is expected to consider the spending increase on Jan. 11.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on McGirt v. Oklahoma in July stating that the Muscogee Creek Nation’s reservation is intact. CN officials therefore by extension the CN reservation is also intact. 

The Commission for the Protection of Cherokee Nation Sovereignty was then established to make recommendations on expanding the courts, attorneys and Marshal Service. The commission also recommends calling on Congress to allow for mutual intergovernmental agreements, or compacts, to give tribes and the Oklahoma government the option to cooperate on criminal cases. CN officials said this approach respects tribal self-determination by creating powers for tribes to compact and would authorize an opt-in mechanism for the state and tribes without mandating changes or diminishing sovereignty over reservations.

CN officials said the tribe’s reservation covers nearly 7,000 square miles, with law enforcement policing that tribal land and the attorney general’s office expecting thousands of criminal cases in the coming year.

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