Justia U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Native American Law
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These appeals stemmed from an Independent Contractor Agreement (the Agreement) entered into by the Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation (the Tribe) and a non-Indian, Lynn Becker. Becker alleged the Tribe breached the Agreement and owed him a substantial amount of money under the terms of the Agreement. The Tribe disputed Becker’s allegations and asserted a host of defenses, including, in part, that the Agreement was void both because it was never approved by the Department of the Interior and because it purported to afford Becker an interest in Tribal trust property. The dispute between Becker and the Tribe over the Agreement spawned five separate lawsuits in three separate court systems. Before the Tenth Circuit were two appeals filed by the Tribe challenging interlocutory decisions issued by the district court in Becker’s most recent federal action, including a decision by the district court to preliminarily enjoin the Tribal Court proceedings and to preclude the Tribal Court’s orders from having preclusive effect in other proceedings. The Tenth Circuit concluded the tribal exhaustion rule required Becker’s federal lawsuit to be dismissed without prejudice. Consequently, the Tenth Circuit reversed the district court’s decision preliminarily enjoining the parties from proceeding in the Tribal Court action and enjoining the Tribal Court’s orders having preclusive effect in other proceedings. The case was remanded to the district court with directions to dismiss Becker’s federal lawsuit without prejudice. View "Becker v. Ute Indian Tribe, et al." on Justia Law

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Charles Williams was a Colorado prisoner who practiced a Native American religion that used tobacco in sweat lodges. The ceremonies were possible because prison officials specified where inmates could use tobacco in religious services. In 2018, prison officials confiscated tobacco from a prisoner and suspected that it had come from Williams’s religious group. Prison officials responded with a 30-day ban on the use of tobacco for religious services. Weeks later, prison officials imposed a lockdown and modified operations, including an indefinite suspension of Native American religious services. Despite this suspension, prison officials allowed Christian and Islamic groups to continue their religious services because outside volunteers could provide supervision. The complaint implied that the suspension lasted at least nine days. Williams sued under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging in part that prison officials violated the First Amendment. The defendants moved to dismiss, asserting qualified immunity. The district court denied the motion on the ground that Williams’s allegations had overcome qualified immunity. The Tenth Circuit concurred: because Williams adequately alleged the violation of a clearly established constitutional right, he has overcome qualified immunity. So the denial of the defendants’ motion to dismiss was affirmed. View "Williams v. Borrego" on Justia Law

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Defendant-Appellant Eric Martinez appealed a district court’s imposition of a 27-month sentence for his burglary conviction under the Indian Major Crimes Act. In February 2016, Martinez and two accomplices burglarized a residence within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation in McKinley County, New Mexico. During the burglary, Martinez used a hammer to break a hole in the front door near the doorknob to gain entry to the residence. He and his accomplices took valuable items from the residence, including electronics, jewelry, and ceremonial shawls and robes. Martinez ultimately pled guilty to an “assimilated” New Mexico burglary offense under N.M. Stat. Ann. 30-16-3. At sentencing, Martinez argued that federal law permitted the district court to impose a conditional discharge, which would allow a term of probation without entry of a judgment of conviction -- a sentence possible had his case been adjudicated in New Mexico state court. He also objected to a two-level sentencing enhancement under U.S.S.G. 2B2.1(b)(4) for possessing a dangerous weapon on the basis that he did not use the hammer as a weapon during the burglary. The district court rejected these arguments. Finding no reversible error, the Tenth Circuit affirmed Martinez’s conviction and sentence. View "United States v. Martinez" on Justia Law

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Defendant Paddy Platero pleaded guilty to a charge of “[a]busive sexual contact” with a child under 12 in Indian country. In computing Defendant’s guideline sentencing range, the United States District Court for the District of New Mexico increased his base offense level on the ground that “the offense involved conduct described in 18 U.S.C. [section] 2241(a) or (b).” Defendant read the guideline as requiring a violation of section 2241(a) or (b). Section 2241 defined the offense of aggravated sexual abuse, not the lesser offense of abusive sexual contact of which Defendant was convicted. Defendant therefore appealed his sentence, contending that his base offense level should not have been increased. The Tenth Circuit rejected Defendant’s reading of Guideline 2A3.4(a)(1): “In context, the only reasonable interpretation of the guideline is that the reference to “conduct described in 18 U.S.C. 2241(a) or (b)” is a reference to the conduct described in [section] 2241 that distinguishes aggravated sexual abuse, which is governed by that section, from sexual abuse in general, which is governed by [section] 2242. Defendant’s interpretation of USSG 2A3.4(a)(1) must be avoided because it would eliminate any possible application of the provision, rendering it useless; and our interpretation finds support in both the history of 2A3.4(a)(1) and the statutory scheme, which sets penalties for the various types of abusive sexual contact set forth in section 2244 by reference to the conduct that distinguishes from one another the various types of sexual abuse prohibited by [sections] 2241, 2242, and 2243 – that is, by reference to the various means employed to commit sexual abuse.” View "United States v. Platero" on Justia Law

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Defendant Jessica Clark pleaded guilty to one count of child neglect in Indian Country. At sentencing, the district court concluded there were no sufficiently analogous Guidelines provision that applied to Clark's conviction, and consequently, it had to sentence her without reference to a specific Guidelines provision or advisory sentencing range. Clark received an 84-month term of imprisonment, to be followed by a five-year term of supervised release. Clark appealed, arguing the district court erred: (1) by not finding U.S.S.G. 2A2.3, the Sentencing Guidelines provision applicable to “Assault” offenses, was sufficiently analogous to her offense of conviction and therefore should have, pursuant to U.S.S.G. 2X5.1, been applied by the district court to determine both an offense level and in turn an advisory Guidelines sentencing range; and (2) the district court plainly erred by failing to adequately explain the reasons for the sentence it imposed. The Tenth Circuit rejected Clark's first argument, but agreed with the second: there was no sufficiently analogous Guidelines provision, but an explanation of the reasons for the sentence ultimately imposed was warranted. View "United States v. Clark" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Merle Denezpi, a Navajo tribal member, was arrested by Ute Mountain Ute tribal authorities and charged with violating the Tribe’s assault and battery laws, as well as two provisions of the Code of Federal Regulations on terroristic threats and false imprisonment. He subsequently entered an "Alford" plea to the assault and battery charge and was released from custody for time served. Six months later, Denezpi was indicted in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado for aggravated sexual assault. The court denied Denezpi’s motion to dismiss the indictment on double jeopardy grounds. At trial, the victim testified Denezpi had previously been incarcerated and implied that he had abused his ex-girlfriend. The court denied Denezpi’s motion to strike that testimony. The jury convicted him and he was sentenced to 360 months’ imprisonment. He appealed the denial of his motions to dismiss and to strike the victim’s testimony at trial. The Tenth Circuit affirmed as to both issues. The Court found that "the ''ultimate source' of the power undergirding' the CFR prosecution of Mr. Denezpi is the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s inherent sovereignty. Therefore, the subsequent prosecution of Mr. Denezpi in the federal district court did not violate the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition against Double Jeopardy." With respect to the victim's testimony, the Tenth Circuit concluded the testimony's admission was harmless: "the evidence against Mr. Denezpi is overwhelming. The SANE examination of [the victim]. revealed substantial injuries to her body, including bruising on her breasts, back, arms, and legs as well as injuries to her genitals. Mr. Denezpi’s DNA was found on [the victim's] genitalia. The SANE nurse testified at trial that [the victim's] injuries were 'consistent with a nonconsensual sexual assault.'" Accordingly, judgment was affirmed. View "United States v. Denezpi" on Justia Law

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The Pueblos of Jemez, Santa Ana, and Zia resided along the Jemez River at a time when their lands passed from Spanish to Mexican sovereignty, and finally to the United States. In 1983, the United States initiated a water-rights adjudication for the Jemez River Basin, claiming water rights on behalf of the Pueblos. The issue this case presented for the Tenth Circuit's review centered on whether the Pueblos' aboriginal water rights were extinguished by the imposition of Spanish authority "without any affirmative adverse act." No matter the method used, the sovereign’s intent to extinguish must be clear and unambiguous; “an extinguishment cannot be lightly implied in view of the avowed solicitude of the Federal Government for the welfare of its Indian wards.” Moreover, “if there is doubt whether aboriginal title has been validly extinguished by the United States, any ‘doubtful expressions, instead of being resolved in favor of the United States, are to be resolved in favor of’ the Indians.” The Tenth Circuit reversed the district court, finding that while "All conquering sovereigns possess authority over their land and resources ... not until the sovereign exercises this authority through clear and adverse affirmative action may it extinguish aboriginal rights." View "United States v. Abouselman" on Justia Law

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Defendant-appellant Patrick Begay assaulted a man in the Navajo Nation with a baseball bat and a knife. The crime thus occurred in Indian country, within the boundaries of the reservation. Both Begay and the victim were enrolled members of the Navajo Nation. Begay was indicted in federal court on two counts of assault with a dangerous weapon and one count of assault resulting in serious bodily injury. He pled guilty to these charges. The Probation Office issued a Presentence Report (“PSR”) calculating Begay’s guidelines imprisonment range to be 46 to 57 months. Begay requested that the court vary from this range because significantly higher penalties are imposed on Native Americans convicted of assault in New Mexico federal court than in New Mexico state court. Defense counsel requested to submit testimony regarding this asserted sentencing disparity. The government objected, arguing that under our precedents, if the district court “even considers this argument or this train of argument in any way whatsoever, any sentence rendered by the [c]ourt becomes invalid.” The sentencing judge agreed stating that she could not consider Begay’s sentencing-disparity argument pursuant to Tenth Circuit precedent. Moreover, the judge stated should would not consider the argument because the evidence Begay offered to present lacked sufficient detail to make any comparison of his sentence to state-court sentences meaningful. Begay was sentenced to 46 months' imprisonment. Although the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals was sympathetic to Begay’s argument that but for an “an accident of history and geography,” he would have received a lighter sentence, the Court concluded its precedents foreclosed the consideration of federal/state sentencing disparities under 18 U.S.C. 3553(a)(6). Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court's judgment. View "United States v. Begay" on Justia Law

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In 2013, defendant-appellant Donovan Muskett was indicted by grand jury, charged with four counts: assault with a dangerous weapon in Indian Country; aggravated burglary in Indian Country (based on New Mexico’s aggravated burglary statute by way of the federal Assimilative Crimes Act); using, carrying, possessing, and brandishing a firearm during and in relation to and in furtherance of a crime of violence; and negligent child abuse in Indian Country. Muskett entered into a plea agreement, under which he pled guilty to the brandishing a firearm charge, the government dismissed the remaining three counts. The parties agreed that, contingent on the district court's acceptance of the plea agreement, Muskett would be sentenced to 84 months in prison. The district court accepted Muskett’s plea and sentenced him to 84 months of imprisonment followed by a three-year term of supervised release. In this matter, Muskett appealed the denial of his motion to vacate the brandishing conviction as a crime of violence based on the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Davis, 139 S. Ct. 2319 (2019) (invalidating the residual clause in 18 U.S.C. 924(c)’s definition of a “crime of violence” as unconstitutionally vague). The parties’ primary disputed whether Muskett’s predicate federal felony—assault with a dangerous weapon, 18 U.S.C. 113(a)(3)—qualified as a crime of violence under the elements clause, thereby rendering harmless the Davis defect in his conviction. Muskett suggested the Tenth Circuit conduct this analysis using the law as it existed at the time of his conviction because application of current law would violate due process limits on the retroactive application of judicial decisions enlarging criminal liability. The Tenth Circuit found precedent compelled the conclusion that assault with a dangerous weapon was categorically a crime of violence under the elements clause. "And we conclude that at the time of his offense, Mr. Muskett had fair notice that section 924(c)’s elements clause could ultimately be construed to encompass his commission of assault with a dangerous weapon." The Court thus affirmed the district court's denial of Muskett’s section 2255 motion. View "United States v. Muskett" on Justia Law

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Defendant-Appellant Jordan Sandoval pleaded guilty to committing an assault in Indian Country which resulted in serious bodily injury. He was sentenced to a prison term of 27 months. Sandoval appealed the district court’s sentence as disproportionate by noting crimes either committed with greater intent or causing death are afforded only slightly higher sentencing ranges under the Guidelines. In the alternative, he argued his sentence was substantively unreasonable. Finding that the district court carefully considered Sandoval's arguments before sentencing, the Tenth Circuit concluded the district court did not abuse its discretion in arriving at his sentence. View "United States v. Sandoval" on Justia Law