HELENA — Months before a state senator and Blackfeet leader allegedly fled a sheriff’s deputy who suspected him of drunken driving, a tribal judge expunged two DUI convictions from the record of the senator’s brother and said the tribe shouldn’t have reported them to the state.
Those erased convictions by Chief Judge Allie Edwards had the effect of reducing a felony charge to a misdemeanor in the case of Shawn Augare, who had been facing his fourth DUI for a stop on Dec. 31, 2011, in Glacier County off the reservation.
As a result, District Judge Laurie McKinnon — now a state Supreme Court justice — ordered Augare on Nov. 14 to pay a $400 fine for his new DUI misdemeanor conviction instead of a possible sentence of 13 months with the Department of Corrections for felony DUI.
The cases of Augare and his brother, Democratic state Sen. Shannon Augare, illustrate the difficult and sometimes confusing jurisdictional issues facing law enforcement officers operating on or near Native American reservations, which are sovereign nations with their own laws, police and justice systems.
The state Department of Transportation’s Montana Comprehensive Highway Safety Plan of 2012 attempted to enlist the help of tribal law enforcement to reduce American Indian fatal crashes, noting that 67 percent of those involving Indians are related to drunken driving. That plan emphasized increased data sharing among tribal, state and local entities as a strategy to help reduce crashes.
“Patterns of traffic violations are always a threat to public safety, and it is important for the state to have an accurate picture of every Montana driver’s history,” attorney general spokesman John Barnes said Monday.
But the ability of tribes to make such policy is a matter of tribal law, he said.
The Blackfeet tribal judge’s decision in October said tribal law enforcement officers have no legal authority to send any record of traffic offenses committed on the reservation to the state, and doing so in Shawn Augare’s case violated his rights.
In her order, Edwards cited a tribal appellate court ruling in a separate case that said a tribal resolution establishes that all jurisdiction lies within the tribal judicial system and “no license and/or driving record is to be sent into the state of Montana.”
“There is no law in the Blackfeet Law and Order Code allowing Law Enforcement to suspend (drivers’ licenses) and/or send records to the State of Montana,” the appellate court’s July 10, 2012, order says.
The Blackfeet tribal justice system handles offenses committed by tribal members on the northwestern Montana reservation. Edwards was appointed to her position by the ruling Blackfeet Tribal Business Committee, of which Shannon Augare is a member, and can be removed by that committee or the tribe’s Law and Order Committee, of which Shannon Augare also is a member.
Edwards said Monday it has been tribal policy not to report DUIs and other offenses to the state since 1999 or 2000, but her October ruling says Blackfeet tribal law enforcement officers recently had been sending the state records of action in traffic violations on the reservation.
Edwards declined to comment on how the appellate court’s ruling on handing over traffic reports to the state justified erasing Shawn Augare’s two convictions in 2000 from tribal records, or whether those prior convictions had been made in error.
Neither Shannon nor Shawn Augare returned calls for comment Monday.
On May 26, a Glacier County deputy pulled over Shannon Augare on U.S. Highway 2 nine miles west of Cut Bank and within the reservation’s boundaries. The deputy identified Shannon Augare as a tribal councilman and observed that he appeared to be impaired and that an “overwhelming odor” of alcohol came from the vehicle, the sheriff’s office said in a statement on May 29.
Shannon Augare then allegedly said the deputy had no jurisdiction and he was going to leave. The deputy told him not to leave and tried to take his keys, but Shannon Augare drove off, the sheriff’s office said.
The deputy did not pursue Shannon Augare, and the sheriff’s office has turned over the case to the tribe.
Tribe chief prosecutor Carl Pepion did not return a call for comment Monday, but previously said he would determine whether to file charges after an investigation was completed.
Glacier County authorities accused Shawn Augare of his fourth drunken-driving offense on Dec. 31, 2011. His trial was put off and a bench warrant was issued for his arrest in July when his public defender could not locate him, according to court documents.
He appeared in August with a new lawyer, and a Nov. 20 trial date was set. Less than a week before the trial, Shawn Augare gave the Glacier County attorney Edwards’ order expunging two of his previous DUIs, and the charges were reduced to a misdemeanor in a plea agreement.