The Minnesota Court of Appeals dealt a blow to efforts by law enforcement agencies to track murderers, sex offenders and kidnappers by ruling that the state can't require American Indians living on reservations to register as predatory offenders.
Tuesday's decision affirmed a Cass County district judge's ruling, but it may be appealed.
State courts are increasingly recognizing Indian tribes as separate nations, with sovereign jurisdiction over the regulation of their citizens in most noncriminal matters.
The crux of the Appeals Court decision was that the state's predatory-offender registration law is civil and regulatory in nature -- not criminal in nature as prosecutors and the state attorney general's office argued.
The case involved Peter Jones, 31, of Cass Lake, who was convicted in 1996 of kidnapping for locking someone in a car trunk for more than 14 hours. Under state law, that conviction made Jones a predatory offender, and thus required to register his addresses after being released from prison.
Jones twice registered his addresses after moving back to northern Minnesota's Leech Lake Indian Reservation, but he then he moved to another Leech Lake address and failed to register, according to court records. He also failed to respond to mailed requests from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to verify his address.
Jones was charged in Cass County with failing to notify the BCA of a change of address. Through his attorney, Blair Nelson of Bemidji, Jones argued that because he was an Indian living on his tribe's reservation, the state lacked jurisdiction to punish him for failing to register, which Nelson called a civil-regulatory requirement.
District Judge John Smith agreed and dismissed the case earlier this year. He ruled that Congress had limited the state's jurisdiction on reservations in Minnesota and several other states to matters of criminal law. On Tuesday, a three-judge appeals panel affirmed that in a seven-page opinion.
"It's a little disconcerting," said Dave Bjerga, special agent in charge of the BCA's northern Minnesota office. "It kind of flies in the face of the movement to get a better handle on where these people are."
Nelson said he and Jones were pleased.
"The registration statute is about rounding up the usual suspects," Nelson said. "It does nothing to keep the streets safe. My client was charged with a felony for failing to return a postcard."
It was not immediately clear how many offenders might be affected by the ruling. The state has 16,594 offenders registered by address, according to the BCA, but no quick way of telling how many are tribal members living on their reservations.
Out of the 105 registered offenders in Cass County, about a dozen besides Jones appear from their addresses to live on the Leech Lake Reservation, said Charlene Erickson, a records specialist with the sheriff's office.
Cass County Attorney Earl Maus said he would decide soon whether to appeal the decision to the Minnesota Supreme Court.
"It's disappointing from a public safety standpoint," Maus said. "Registration not only helps law enforcement identify possible suspects; often it warns the public about where a predatory offender resides."
Maus also said he's concerned that some Indian offenders could purposefully thwart the state's registration radar by moving first to their home reservation, then moving off the reservation again without informing the BCA.
(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)