United States v. Lara

PETITIONER:United States
LOCATION:Meramec River

DOCKET NO.: 03-107
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

CITATION: 541 US 193 (2004)
GRANTED: Sep 30, 2003
ARGUED: Jan 21, 2004
DECIDED: Apr 19, 2004

Alexander F. Reichert – argued the cause for Respondent
Edwin S. Kneedler – argued the cause for Petitioner
Jon Metropoulos – for Thomas Lee Morris et al.

Facts of the case

Bureau of Indian Affairs officials arrested Billy Jo Lara on the Spirit Lake Nation Reservation for public intoxication (though Lara is not a member of the reservation). During the arrest Lara attacked an officer.

A tribal court convicted Lara of assault. The federal government then indicted Lara for assaulting a federal officer. Lara moved to dismiss the indictment, claiming the federal charges violated the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition against double jeapordy (being charged twice for the same crime). The district court denied Lara’s motion. Lara then entered a conditional guilty plea, reserving the right to appeal the denial of his Fifth Amendment motion.

A panel of the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court ruling. However, the Eight Circuit reversed when it reviewed the case en banc (with the full court), ruling that Lara’s federal charges violated the double jeapordy clause. The court reasoned that the only source of authority for Spring Lake Nation to prosecute a nonmember (like Lara) came from the federal Indian Civil Rights Act (1968). Because the federal government delegated this prosecutorial authority to Indian Tribes, charging Lara for the same crime in tribal and federal courts was essentially trying Lara twice under federal authority.


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?

Media for United States v. Lara

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 21, 2004 in United States v. Lara

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 19, 2004 in United States v. Lara

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in United States against Lara will be announced by Justice Breyer.

Stephen G. Breyer:

Now on the surface, this case concerns the application of the Double Jeopardy Clause.

Billy Jo Lara, who is a member of the Chippewa Indian Tribe, claims that the current federal prosecution, he has been prosecuted federally for assaulting an officer, and he says that that prosecution is the second time that he has been prosecuted for the same thing, and the first time was when an Indian Tribe that he is not a member of, the Spirit Lake Tribe, convicted him of the same assault.

Now, the Double Jeopardy Clause, everybody admits, allows two prosecutions for the same crime as long as each prosecution is brought by a different sovereign.

Now, this is called the dual sovereignty doctrine, and it brings us to what is really the deeper more difficult issue in the case, and that concerns what the nature of that first prosecution by the Indian Tribe was.

Does that prosecution represent an exercise of power by the same federal government that is now trying to prosecute Lara again?

Or is that first tribal prosecution an exercise of power by a separate sovereign?

Well, we have two prior cases that deal with a similar kind of issue.

In United States versus Wheeler, we said when an Indian Tribe prosecutes a member of the same tribe it is not acting as part of the United States; it is acting as a separate sovereign, because a tribe retains the inherent tribal sovereignty to prosecute its own members.

But then in a case called Duro versus Reina, we said that when that tribe prosecutes a member of a different tribe, it does not have inherent tribal authority to do so.

So, after Duro, the understanding was that a tribal prosecution of a non-member could only take place if the Federal Government delegated federal power to the tribe to conduct the prosecution.

But why is not the end of the matter?

It is not the end of the matter because Congress then enacted a statute, and that statute gave each tribe the power to prosecute members of other tribes for certain offenses, and that statute adds that when Congress gives them that power, it is recognizing and affirming the tribe’s inherent power, i.e. their own sovereign tribal power to conduct that prosecution, and that is what the Sprit Lake tribe did.

So, we have to ask whether Congress has the constitutional power to do what it tried to do to relax restrictions that over the course of time political branches have placed on what was many, many, many years ago an exercise of the tribe’s inherent power to prosecute members of other tribes.

We conclude that Congress does possess the constitutional authority in effect, to give back that tribal authority to the Indian Tribes.

First, the Constitution grants Congress powers that this Court has described as plannery and exclusive in respect to Indian Tribes and we have found, this Court has, that authority rooted in the Indian Commerce Clause and also in parts of the Constitution that grant Congress certain authority in foreign affairs and military matter.

Second, we found other instances in which Congress has changed the meets and bounds of tribal sovereign authority as well as tribal status.

Third, this kind of a goal changing, modifying status is not an unusual kind of goal, for Congress has done that kind of thing in other areas under other parts of the Constitution, think for example of the Philippines or Puerto Rico.

Fourth, the change made here is limited.

Fifth, we do not read our prior cases as stopping Congress from doing it.

And finally, we reserve for other future cases if they come.

The question of whether prosecuting a non-member Indian violates, for example, guarantees of the Due Process Clause or the Equal Protection Clause, those issues are not relevant in this particular dual sovereignty context.

We conclude the Tribe was acting as a separate sovereign when it prosecuted Lara.

Consequently, the first tribal prosecution cannot bar a second federal prosecution and we reverse an Eighth Circuit decision holding to the contrary.

Justice Stevens has filed a concurring opinion; Justice Kennedy has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment; Justice Thomas has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment; Justice Souter has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Scalia has joined.