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UNITED STATES V. WHEELER, 435 U. S. 313 (1978)

U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Wheeler, 435 U.S. 313 (1978)

United States v. Wheeler

No. 76-1629

Argued January 11, 1978

Decided March 22, 1978

435 U.S. 313


Respondent, a member of the Navajo Tribe, pleaded guilty in Tribal Court to a charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and was sentenced. Subsequently, he was indicted by a federal grand jury for statutory rape arising out of the same incident. He moved to dismiss the indictment on the ground that, since the tribal offense of contributing to the delinquency of a minor was a lesser included offense of statutory rape, the Tribal Court proceeding barred the subsequent federal prosecution. The District Court granted the motion, and the Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that, since tribal courts and federal district courts are not "arms of separate sovereigns," the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Fifth Amendment barred respondent's federal trial.

Held: The Double Jeopardy Clause does not bar the federal prosecution. Pp. 435 U. S. 316-332.

(a) The controlling question is the source of an Indian tribe's power to punish tribal offenders, i.e., whether it is a part of inherent tribal sovereignty or an aspect of the sovereignty of the Federal Government that has been delegated to the tribes by Congress. Pp. 435 U. S. 316-322.

(b) Indian tribes still possess those aspects of sovereignty not withdrawn by treaty or statute, or by implication as a necessary result of their dependent status. Pp. 435 U. S. 322-323.

(c) Here, it is evident from the treaties between the Navajo Tribe and the United States and from the various statutes establishing federal criminal jurisdiction over crimes involving Indians, that the Navajo Tribe has never given up its sovereign power to punish tribal offenders, nor has that power implicitly been lost by virtue of the Indians' dependent status; thus, tribal exercise of that power is presently the continued exercise of retained tribal sovereignty. Pp. 435 U. S. 323-326.

(d) Moreover, such power is not attributable to any delegation of federal authority. Pp. 435 U. S. 326-328.

(e) When an Indian tribe criminally punishes a tribe member for violating tribal law, the tribe acts as an independent sovereign, and not as an arm of the Federal Government, Talton v. Mayes, 163 U. S. 376, and since tribal and federal prosecutions are brought by separate sovereigns,

Page 435 U. S. 314

they are not "for the same offence," and the Double Jeopardy Clause thus does not bar one when the other has occurred. Pp. 435 U. S. 328-330.

(f) To limit the "dual sovereignty" concept to successive state and federal prosecutions, as respondent urges, would result, in a case such as this, in the "undesirable consequences" of having a tribal prosecution for a relatively minor offense bar a federal prosecution for a much graver one, thus depriving the Federal Government of the right to enforce its own laws; while Congress could solve this problem by depriving Indian tribes of criminal jurisdiction altogether, this abridgment of the tribes' sovereign powers might be equally undesirable. See Abbate v. United States, 359 U. S. 187. Pp. 435 U. S. 330-332.

545 F.2d 1255, reversed and remanded.

STEWART, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which all other Members joined except BRENNAN, J., who took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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