United States v. Bryant
On February 1, 2016, NIWRC filed an amicus brief to support the United States’ position in U.S. v. Bryant. The brief argues that Congress did not intend to make the application of the habitual offender provision dependent on whether the defendant in the underlying tribal court domestic violence conviction received assistance of counsel. It further advocates that federal courts have no authority to dictate to tribal governments how they will treat their own members in their respective tribal courts.
In U.S. v. Bryant, the Court has granted review of a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit which held that tribal court criminal convictions for domestic violence may be used in federal court prosecutions as a habitual offender under 18 USC §117 (the “Habitual Offender Provision”) only if the tribal court guarantees a right to counsel. The Ninth Circuit (in conflict with the Eighth and Tenth Circuits) concluded that it is constitutionally impermissible to use uncounseled convictions to establish an element of the offense in a subsequent prosecution under § 117(a). The case raises important issues of protecting the safety of Native women survivors of domestic violence in Indian country, as well as questions on the right to counsel for indigent persons in tribal courts.
NIWRC filed an amicus brief to support the United States’ position, specifically, to make clear that Congress did not intend to make the application of the Habitual Offender Provision dependent on whether the defendant in the underlying tribal court DV conviction received assistance of counsel. Thus, NIWRC advocated that federal courts have no authority to dictate to Tribal Governments how they will treat their own members in their own Tribal Courts. Tribal Governments, like all other sovereign governments, know best how to balance the rights of their women to be free from domestic violence with the rights of the accused perpetrators to be treated fairly and afforded due process. Nothing in the United States Constitution provides the U.S. federal courts with the authority to determine how Tribal Governments will adjudicate disputes that fall exclusively between tribal citizens. NIWRC’s brief will also cover the extensive and important legislative history behind the enactment of the Habitual Offender Provision. Domestic violence is a pattern of violence that typically escalates over time in severity and frequency. To prevent future violence and end the pattern, perpetrators must be held accountable immediately. Many states have passed statutes enhancing the penalty for repeat domestic violence offenders. Native women under federal jurisdiction however did not have this protection so the movement organized nationally to pass the Habitual Offender Provision as part of the Safety for Indian Women Title of VAWA in 2005.
Bryant exemplified the problems inherent in a legal framework that limits both the tribal government and federal government to imposing nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Despite hundreds of convictions and hundreds of contacts with tribal police, Bryant continued to abuse numerous Native women. For several years, he hit, strangled, kneed, kicked, and bit Native women. In 1999, he strangled his girlfriend at the time and smashed a beer bottle on her head. In 2007, he punched and kneed a girlfriend in the face. In February 2011, he grabbed his then-girlfriend, pulled her hair, repeatedly punched her in the face and chest, repeatedly kicked her, bit her fingers, and threatened her. In May of that same year, Bryant violently assaulted another woman who was living with him at the time. One morning, when he awoke and could not find his truck keys, he grabbed his victim with both hands and strangled her until she almost passed out. Bryant has been convicted of committing crimes of domestic violence in January 1998, July 1998, March 2002, September 2002, July 2003, and February 2005, in addition to his most recent 2011 conviction in the United States District Court, District of Montana.