United States v. Wheeler

PETITIONER: United States
LOCATION: Allied Structural Steel Company: Industrial Construction Division

DOCKET NO.: 76-1629
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 435 US 313 (1978)
ARGUED: Jan 11, 1978
DECIDED: Mar 22, 1978

Stephen L. Urbanczyk - for petitioner
Thomas W. O'Toole -

Facts of the case


Media for United States v. Wheeler

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 11, 1978 in United States v. Wheeler

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - March 22, 1978 in United States v. Wheeler

Warren E. Burger:

The opinion of the Court in United States against Wheeler will be announced by Mr. Justice Stewart.

Potter Stewart:

This case is here by way of a writ of certiorari granted to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The question presented by the case is whether the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment bars the prosecution of an Indian in a Federal District Court when he has previously been convicted in a tribal court of a lesser included offense arising out of the same criminal episode.

The respondent, Anthony Wheeler, is a member of the Navajos tribe.

In 1974, he pleaded guilty in a Navajos tribal court to charges of disorderly conduct and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

He was sentenced to a maximum of 60 days in jail or a fine of less than $200.

More than a year later, an indictment charging the respondent with statutory rape was returned by a grand jury in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona.

The respondent filed the motion to dismiss this indictment, claiming that the proceedings that had taken place in the tribal court barred a subsequent Federal prosecution by reason of the Double Jeopardy Clause.

The District Court granted the motion and the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the indictment.

We granted certiorari to resolve an intercircuit conflict.

Almost 20 years ago in the Bartkus and Abbate cases, reported in volume 359 of the United States reports, this Court reaffirmed the well-established principle that a Federal prosecution does not bar a subsequent state prosecution of the same person for the same conduct, and that a state prosecution does not bar a Federal one.

The basis for this doctrine is the prosecutions under the laws of separate sovereigns do not, in the language of the Fifth Amendment, "subject the defendant for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy".

That doctrine is applicable in the present case, if the Navajos tribal court and the Federal District Court are courts of separate sovereigns.

It is not applicable if the courts are courts of the same sovereign.

The controlling question in this case therefore is the source of the Navajos court's power to punish tribal offenders.

Is it a part of inherent tribal sovereignty or is it one -- is it on the other hand an aspect of the sovereignty of the Federal Government which has been delegated to the Navajos tribe by Congress.

For the reasons set out in detail in the written opinion of the Court filed today with the clerk, we have concluded that the power to punish offenses against Tribal law committed by members of the Navajos tribe is based upon the Navajos' primeval sovereignty, that this power has never been taken away from them, and that it is attributable in no way to any delegation to them of federal authority.

It follows that when the Navajo Tribe exercises this power, it does so as part of its retained sovereignty and not as an arm of the Federal Government.

Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.

Mr. Justice Brennan took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.