First Trial of a Non-Native American in a Tribal Court

Monday, April 21, 2014

Two months after the go-ahead was given to a pilot program allowing non-Indians to be tried in tribal courts for certain offenses, the Pascua Yaqui tribe in Arizona is preparing to be the first to hold such a trial.


Congress had been reluctant to grant tribes the right to try non-Indians, but the Yaquis and two other tribes showed evidence that they could hold proper trials and safeguard the rights of the accused. In February, the Justice Department initiated a pilot program with the three tribes to try non-Indians accused of domestic violence against Native American women on reservations. A few weeks ago, Yaqui tribal police arrested Eloy Figueroa Lopez, charging him with trying to choke his wife in front of her children.


When Lopez comes to trial, it will be in a modern courtroom. All proceedings are recorded and each juror can view evidence on a monitor in front of his or her seat. Jurors will be chosen not just from among tribal members, but from non-Indians who work on the reservation and in the tribe’s casino. Lopez will have access to a public defender, just as he would in a traditional court.

The legislation allowing the trials is narrow. Only those accused of domestic violence against Native American partners can be tried. Child abuse cases and incidents of violence by “strangers” to their victims are also excluded. The nation’s other 563 tribes will be allowed to join the program next year, but the law does not extend to Native American women in Alaska. “It was a compromise the tribes had to make,” Pascua Yaqui Attorney General Amanda Lomayesva said. “It only partially fixes the problem.” 


Lopez, a resident alien from Mexico, faces charges of domestic violence aggravated assault, battery and endangerment. If convicted, he could be deported.


Pascua Yaqui authorities are glad to be able to bring such people to justice at last. “When you do not have an adequate system of justice or laws, it creates a perception of lawlessness,” Pascua Yaqui chief prosecutor Alfred Urbina said. “In the past, I have had to face whole families and explain that we could not provide the full measure of justice their loved ones deserved. When you have decades of this legal sickness festering in tribal communities, it has a tremendous impact on the health and wellness of tribes.” 

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

Arizona Tribe Set To Prosecute First Non-Indian Under A New Law (by Sari Horwitz, Washington Post)

Native American Tribes Begin, for First Time, to Prosecute Non-Indian Wife Abusers (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Native Americans Win Right to Prosecute Non-Indians in Tribal Courts (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)


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