MARCH 23, 2009
A south Florida Indian tribe regularly abuses its sovereignty to protect members that commit serious crimes—including murder, felony assault and drunken driving outside tribal land—from justice.
The wealthy and politically connected Miccosukee Tribe of Indians wields tremendous power throughout the state, even though it has only 550 members. The tribe has three huge reservation areas near Miami, tens of thousands of acres and a highly profitable, state-of-the-art casino and convention center.
Besides its lucrative gaming income the tribe’s most prized asset is its sovereignty, granted by the U.S. Department of the Interior more than four decades ago. It means that the tribe is self-governed, completely independent and protected from any sort of government intervention. Its members are therefore immune from U.S. justice, even when they commit serious crimes outside the reservation against non-Indians.
Instead they answer to a hokey tribal legal system based on ancient customs and traditions. The so-called judges have no legal background, insist “major crimes never happen” and operate under the basic assumption that Indians never lie. There is no prosecutor and nobody ever goes to jail because the Miccosukees don’t believe in prison. One tribal judge refers to the legal system as more of a “family counseling type of thing.”
The system has allowed tribal members to literally get away with murder, felony battery on a police officer and numerous incidents of public intoxication that often led to other serious crimes. A few years ago Miccosukee Chairman Billy Cypress nearly killed a non-Indian couple after crashing his car into theirs on a state road. The tribal court acquitted him.
In 2000 the tribal court also acquitted a member who drowned his two children by rolling his sports utility vehicle into a canal near the reservation. When Miami-Dade prosecutors pursued the murder case the tribe and its court shielded the double-murderer, stressing that elders forgave him and that the matter had been resolved according to Miccosukee customs and traditions.
Cases like these have outraged state authorities as well as victims’ relatives, including a woman murdered by a drunken Miccosukee on a highway outside the reservation in late January. Although the head-on collision took place on a state road, tribal police handled the investigation and have refused to even identify the members involved, citing Indian sovereignty.
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