United States v. Lara

Facts of the Case

In 1990, the United States Supreme Court held that an Indian tribe lacked sovereign authority to prosecute Indians who were not members of that tribe. However, Congress subsequently amended a provision of the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 (25 USCS § 1301(2)) so as to recognize the inherent power of Indian tribes to exercise criminal jurisdiction over all Indians. A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians was married to a member of the Spirit Lake Tribe and lived on the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota. When federal police officers came to the reservation to arrest the Band member for alleged public intoxication, the Band member struck one of the officers. The Band member pleaded guilty in the Spirit Lake Tribal Court to a charge of violence to a policeman–a violation of the Spirit Lake tribal code–and served 90 days in jail for that crime. In the United States District Court for the District of North Dakota, the Federal Government subsequently charged the Band member with the crime of assaulting a federal officer in alleged violation of 18 USCS § 111(a)(1). The Band member moved to dismiss the indictment as assertedly violative of the double jeopardy clause of the Federal Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, but the District Court denied the motion. The appellate court reversed, holding that the second prosecution violated the double jeopardy clause.


Does the Indian Civil Rights Act (1968) give Indian tribes separate sovereignty to prosecute nonmembers (as opposed to delegating federal power to the tribes for prosecution purposes) such that prosecution in tribal and federal courts for the same crime would not violate the Fifth Amendment double jeopardy clause?


Yes. In an opinion written by Justice Stephen G. Breyer and joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and three other Justices, the Court found that the right to prosecute nonmember Indians is inherent in the sovereignty of Native American tribes. Congress may constitutionally choose to restrict this right, but its choice not to (or its choice to relax earlier-imposed restrictions) is different from a delegation of federal prosecutorial power. Prosecuting a crime under both federal and tribal law, therefore, does not violate the Constitution.

Case Information

  • Citation: 541 US 193 (2004)
  • Granted: Sep 30, 2003
  • Argued: Jan 21, 2004
  • Decided Apr 19, 2004