Supreme Court: Double jeopardy doesn’t apply for man convicted in federal court after tribal trial


The Supreme Court on Monday ruled against an American Indian who claimed the feds couldn’t prosecute him for sex abuse after he had already pleaded guilty to assault and battery in tribal court.

Merle Denezpi claimed the dual punishment violated the Constitution’s protection against double jeopardy, where someone can’t be prosecuted twice for the same crime.

But in a 6-3 ruling, the high court said Denezpi was charged with separate crimes — assault and battery in the Court of Indian Offenses and sex abuse under the feds’ Major Crime Act in federal court. The justices’ votes were not divided along ideological lines.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett delivered the opinion for the majority, pointing to a 1978 case where the high court ruled a man could be tried and convicted in tribal court under the Navajo Tribal Code as well as in federal court for violating a federal law for the illegal conduct.

“The two laws, defined by separate sovereigns, therefore proscribe separate offenses. Because Denezpi’s second prosecution did not place him in jeopardy again ‘for the same offence,’” that prosecution did not violate the Double Jeopardy Clause,” wrote Justice Barrett.

She was joined in the ruling by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and justices Brett M. Kavanaugh, Stephen G. Breyer, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas.

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Justice Neil M. Gorsuch dissented from the court’s ruling, arguing the Court of Indian Offenses is part of the federal government, under the Department of Interior, so Denezpi was charged and prosecuted twice by the feds.

“Federal prosecutors tried Merle Denezpi twice for the same crime. First, they charged him with violating a federal regulation. Then, they charged him with violating an overlapping federal statute. Same defendant, same crime, same prosecuting authority,” he wrote.

Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor joined Justice Gorsuch’s dissent.

The dispute arose when Denezpi and another member of the Navajo Nation, a woman, traveled to a town within the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation. Denezpi threatened the woman when they were alone at a friend’s house and forced her to have sex, according to court papers. She escaped and reported the incident to tribal authorities. 

An officer from the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs filed a complaint against Denezpi in the Court of Indian Offenses. Denezpi pleaded guilty to assault and battery and the other charges he faced — making terroristic threats and false imprisonment — were dismissed. He served 140 days in prison.

Six months later, though, a federal grand jury indicted him on aggravated sexual abuse in Colorado federal court. He was convicted and sentenced to 360 months in prison.

An appeals court upheld the conviction over Denezpi’s claim of double jeopardy, leading him to take his case to the high court.

The case is Denezpi v. United States.


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