HELENA — Five of Montana’s seven American Indian reservations don’t report drunken-driving convictions to the state, and county prosecutors say the information void poses a safety risk for both repeat offenders and other drivers.
Tribal justice systems generally have jurisdiction over misdemeanor crimes committed by Native Americans on reservations, and a DUI becomes a felony in Montana only upon a person’s fourth offense.
That means the state has no ability to force tribal courts to share their misdemeanor DUI conviction records with Montana’s Motor Vehicle Division, said attorney general spokesman John Barnes.
Only the Flathead and Fort Peck reservations voluntarily share DUI conviction records, Barnes said. Those that withhold DUI records are the Blackfeet, Crow, Fort Belknap, Northern Cheyenne and Rocky Boy’s reservations.
Glacier County attorney Carolyn Berkram, whose county includes all of the Blackfeet reservation in northwestern Montana, said she was shocked to learn so many tribes don’t report DUIs to the state. That means police don’t know how many people with unreported DUIs who may need treatment are sharing the road with other drivers, she said.
“I think that this is a terrible policy and I don’t think it serves any Montanans well, whether they’re tribal members or not,” Berkram said.
Big Horn County attorney Georgette Boggio, whose territory includes parts of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations, said the lack of data means the level of risk to the public is unknown.
“It’s hard to know what impact it’s having, except the folks who are committing those crimes aren’t getting the help they need as soon as they get it,” Boggio said.
Four of the five tribal governments did not respond to queries by The Associated Press. Blackfeet chief prosecutor Carl Pepion declined to comment.
It’s not just a Montana problem. There are 324 federally recognized American Indian reservations, and many have faced the same issues. For example, a 2007 report prepared for the South Dakota Department of Transportation found that only 52 of 737 crashes on tribal lands were included in the state’s Accident Reporting System.
The Montana Department of Transportation’s Comprehensive Highway Safety Plan of 2012 attempted to enlist the help of tribal law enforcement to reduce Native American fatal crashes, noting that 67 percent of those crashes involving Native Americans are related to drunken driving. That plan emphasized increased data sharing among tribal, state and local entities as a new strategy to help reduce crashes.
But it has become entangled in questions of tribal sovereignty, and just what tribal governments are willing to share with the state.
“I think there is always sovereignty issues we need to respect, but we also need to make sure that Montanans are safe on the highways,” Gov. Steve Bullock said Friday.
“That may end up one of the issues on the agenda, but we have not set any meeting in the future,” he added.
Tribal jurisdiction was put in the spotlight after Democratic state Sen. Shannon Augare, who is also a Blackfeet tribal council member, was pulled over by a Glacier County sheriff’s deputy on the reservation May 26 for suspicion of drunken driving.
Augare told the deputy he had no jurisdiction to arrest him and drove away as the deputy attempted to take Augare’s keys, according to the sheriff’s office.
The county has turned the case over to tribal authorities, who have not decided whether to pursue charges.
Months before Augare’s traffic stop, a Blackfeet tribal judge expunged two DUIs from the record of Augare’s brother, Shawn, effectively reducing a felony DUI charge Shawn Augare was facing in Cut Bank to a misdemeanor.
Chief Judge Allie Edwards said in her October decision that tribal law enforcement officers who sent records of those previous DUI convictions to the state violated his rights.
Adding to the tension is a March 3 memo to Blackfeet tribal police issued by Shannon Augare, who is the head of the tribe’s Law and Order Committee. The memo orders Blackfeet tribal police not to call for non-tribal law-enforcement assistance unless no tribal officers are available.
“If another law enforcement jurisdiction arrives on the scene, the (tribal officer) shall professionally and politely ask them to leave the scene,” Augare’s memo reads.
Augare has not spoken publicly since the May 26 traffic stop. He again declined to comment on Friday.
“If I have something to say I will certainly call back, but please quit calling my phone and leaving messages,” he told a reporter before hanging up.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead reservation in western Montana take a different tack. The tribes have an agreement with the state, its four adjacent counties and cities on the reservation that allows any law enforcement officer to ticket any person pulled over in the reservation.
Non-tribal officers can write tribal members tickets for which they appear in tribal court, while tribal officers can write non-tribal members tickets that go to county courts, said tribal police Capt. Louis Fiddler.
The retrocession agreement with the state was first signed in 1994 and the nearby counties and cities have since been added to it.
The tribe maintains exclusive jurisdiction over its members in all misdemeanor cases and the various agencies can pool their resources, Fiddler said.
“Before everybody signed on, I’d have to travel all the way across the county because a non-Indian officer couldn’t write a speeding ticket,” he said.
Now, jurisdictional issues are obsolete, he said.
“I think all reservations are particular in their own way, but this system works for us,” he said.