April 26, 2002
Native American Press / Ojibwe News

Partial settlement reached in Mille Lacs civil rights suit, claims against reservation police to continue

By Clara NiiSka

While the federal district court in Minnesota considers whether to hear their civil rights lawsuit against the Mille Lacs Tribal Police, Press/ON plaintiffs Jeff Armstrong and Bill Lawrence this week accepted a settlement offer from Mille Lacs County over its role in detaining the reporter in order to prevent him from attending an Oct. 22, 1997 meeting of the MCT Tribal Executive Committee. The agreement specifically preserves the plaintiffs' claims against the Mille Lacs Tribal Police, which hinge upon the constitutionality of the arrest and the county-reservation law enforcement pact under which it was effected.

Armstrong and Lawrence said the monetary settlement would send an unmistakable message to counties operating under similar law enforcement agreements that they cannot escape liability for their actions by hiding behind tribal sovereign immunity. Although the Mille Lacs policing agreement requires the governing RBC to waive its immunity from suit for purposes of law enforcement, the county had supported efforts by reservation attorneys to force transfer of the case to the Mille Lacs Tribal Court.

"I believe we have shown that the state is bound by its own constitution and that of the United States, both of which supersede the terms of an agreement with a Reservation Business Committee which itself has no tribal constitutional authority to make such an agreement," said Armstrong.

The plaintiffs further expressed hopes that removing the county as a party to the litigation would clarify and narrow the issues before the federal court.

Federal magistrate Raymond Erickson ordered a stay of proceedings in the case Aug. 2, 2000, holding that the plaintiffs must exhaust tribal remedies before bringing claims against the reservation to a U.S. court.

"Of necessity, therefore, we leave this jurisdictional question to the Tribal Court, in the first instance, but the ultimate issue of jurisdiction will, of equal necessity, be subject to our independent review, as the need should arise," Erickson wrote.

Complying with the order, Armstrong and Lawrence presented oral arguments before Mille Lacs judge B.J. Jones without benefit of legal counsel on May 24 of last year.

In an ambiguously-worded decision dated Oct. 2, 2001, Jones suggested the plaintiffs had both tribal and federal claims.

"This Court concludes that the Plaintiffs' complaint, construed liberally, contains allegations which, if proven, state a claim for a violation of the Indian Civil Rights Act and the Civil Rights Code of the Mille Lacs Band as contained in Title 1 of the Mille Lacs Band Statutes Annotated. This conclusion does not intimate that the Plaintiffs do not also have claims arising under 42 U.S.C. 1983, but only that their claims implicate tribal laws and federal laws designed to protect individual rights enforceable only in tribal courts," wrote Jones.

In an effort to expedite the four-year-old federal lawsuit, the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed the defamation charges claimed by the tribal court as subject to its exclusive jurisdiction.

Although Jones stated his belief during oral arguments that the reporter was arrested pursuant to the state-sponsored law enforcement agreement as argued by the plaintiffs, he wrote in his subsequent ruling that it was unclear whether the RBC was exercising its inherent authority or acting under a state statute purporting to authorize the agreement.

"In this case, the Court believes both Parties make convincing arguments in support of their positions. The role of this Court is not, however, to decide whether the actions of the Defendants were undertaken pursuant to a grant of authority under state law. This decision is for the federal courts," wrote Jones.