In Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta the U.S. Supreme Court held 5-4 that states (along with the federal government) may prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian country.

Victor Manuel Castro-Huerta in a non-Indian who lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was sentenced to 35 years imprisonment after Oklahoma convicted him for child neglect of his stepdaughter who is a Cherokee Indian. A federal grand jury indicted Castro-Huerta for the same conduct. He accepted a plea agreement for a 7-year sentence and removal from the United States.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma (2020), that Congress never properly disestablished the Creek Nation’s reservation in eastern Oklahoma, Tulsa is now recognized as Indian country.

Castro-Huerta argued the federal government has exclusive jurisdiction to prosecute crimes committed by a non-Indian against an Indian in Indian country and that therefore Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction to prosecute him. In an opinion written by Justice Kavanaugh the Court disagreed.

The Court began its analysis by noting “the Court’s precedents establish that Indian country is part of a State’s territory and that, unless preempted, States have jurisdiction over crimes committed in Indian country.”

The Court applied a two-part test to determine whether a state’s jurisdiction in Indian country may be preempted in this case “(i) by federal law under ordinary principles of federal preemption, or (ii) when the exercise of state jurisdiction would unlawfully infringe on tribal self-government.” The Court concluded it could not.

Castro-Huerta argued that the General Crimes Act and Public Law 280 preempt Oklahoma’s authority to prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians against Indians in Indian country. The General Crimes Act states: “Except as otherwise expressly provided by law, the general laws of the United States as to the punishment of offenses committed in any place within the sole and exclusive jurisdiction of the United States . . . shall extend to the Indian country.”

According to the Court, “[b]y its terms, the Act does not preempt the State’s authority to prosecute non-Indians who commit crimes against Indians in Indian country. The text of the Act simply ‘extend[s]’ federal law to Indian country, leaving untouched the background principle of state jurisdiction over crimes committed within the State, including in Indian country.”

Castro-Huerta also argued that Public Law 280, which grants certain states broad jurisdiction to prosecute state-law offenses committed by or against Indians in Indian country, is a source of preemption. The Court responded: “Public Law 280 does not preempt any preexisting or otherwise lawfully assumed jurisdiction that States possess to prosecute crimes in Indian country.”  

The Supreme Court has held that even when federal law does not preempt state jurisdiction under ordinary preemption analysis, preemption may still occur if “the exercise of state jurisdiction would unlawfully infringe upon tribal self-government.” Per White Mountain Apache Tribe v. Bracker (1980) the Court considers tribal interests, federal interests, and state interests.

First, the Court opined that the exercise of state jurisdiction here would not infringe on tribal self-government because tribes generally can’t prosecute crimes committed by non-Indians even when non-Indians commit crimes against Indians in Indian country. Second, a state prosecution of a non-Indian won’t harm the federal interest in protecting Indian victims because state prosecution would supplement not supplant federal authority. Third, states have “a strong sovereign interest in ensuring public safety and criminal justice within its territory, and in protecting all crime victims.”

Justices Gorsuch, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan dissented opining: “Tribes are sovereigns. And the preemption rule applicable to them is exactly the opposite of the normal rule. Tribal sovereignty means that the criminal laws of the States ‘can have no force’ on tribal members within tribal bounds unless and until Congress clearly ordains otherwise.”

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