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Friday, May 24, 2024 | Back issues
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Court Curbs U.S. Power in Indian Country Cockfights

(CN) - The 10th Circuit cleared the convictions of a man arrested at a cockfight in Oklahoma, finding that federal courts have no jurisdiction "over victimless crimes committed by non-Indians in Indian country."

Robert Langford was one of 70 people cited during a July 22, 2006, raid of the T.F.C. cockfighting facility in rural Oklahoma, on property held in trust by the United States for the Kiowa tribe. Five to seven of the people cited during the raid were American Indians; everyone else, including Langford, was "non-Indian."

A federal jury convicted Langford of being a spectator at a cockfight, a criminalized state offense as assimilated into federal law through the Assimilative Crimes Act and Indian Country Crimes Act

His conviction was affirmed by a federal judge in Oklahoma City, but the Denver-based federal appeals panel vacated on Monday.

In obtaining Langford's conviction, the government failed to produce any evidence of the man's status as an Indian or non-Indian, Judge Carlos Lucero wrote for a three-judge panel.

"There is no dispute that the conduct at issue in this case, watching a cockfight, occurred in Indian country," Lucero wrote. "Nor is there any dispute that Langford is a non-Indian. The only issue is whether there is federal jurisdiction for a victimless crime, perpetrated by a non-Indian in Indian country. This is a question of first impression, but the answer is clear. There is no jurisdiction.

"The states possess exclusive criminal jurisdiction over crimes occurring in Indian country if there is neither an Indian victim, nor an Indian perpetrator," Lucero continued.

Citing several Supreme Court cases, the court said Oklahoma plainly has sole jurisdiction to prosecute Langford's crime.

"We conclude by emphasizing that our holding does not create a 'safe haven' for 'fanatic cockfighters' as the government contends," Lucero wrote.

On remand, the Western District of Oklahoma must dismiss the charges against Langford with prejudice.

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