Cherokee Nation overhauls criminal code after McGirt decision

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TAHLEQUAH, Okla. (KFOR) – Following a landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court, the Cherokee Nation says it is updating its criminal code.

On July 9, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the Muscogee (Creek) reservation was never disestablished. It’s a ruling that has a big impact on the state’s criminal justice system.

“For anybody that has an Indian card, a CDIB card, a certified degree of Indian blood,” Native American law attorney Robert Gifford told KFOR. “If they are within the Creek Nation, the state of Oklahoma had no jurisdiction over them.”

As it stands, these decisions alter the State’s legal jurisdiction and law enforcement capabilities on potentially a significant portion of eastern Oklahoma, creating uncertainty for many Oklahomans.

Now, the Council of the Cherokee Nation has unanimously approved overhauling the Cherokee Nation criminal code based on recommendations from the Commission for the Protection of Cherokee Nation Sovereignty.

Many of the Cherokee Nation’s criminal laws were updated and made consistent with existing Oklahoma laws. Other updates were made to ensure that any cases dismissed by state courts as a result of the decision in McGirt can be refiled in the Cherokee Nation’s courts.

“As we celebrate the McGirt decision and our sovereignty, we must also remain prepared to continue to protect public safety while addressing new legal challenges. Updating our criminal code will improve law enforcement on our reservation, and ensure that we are ready when criminal cases are dismissed in state courts,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “We also want to maintain order and consistency and avoid any confusion among the public and law enforcement officers.”

The revised criminal code makes it a felony to abuse a pregnant woman, updates assault and battery domestic abuse laws, and clarifies the penalties and fines for felonies and misdemeanors.

“There’s a lot at stake after this court ruling and it’s important our Cherokee Nation laws reflect   these changes and challenges ahead,” said Tribal Councilor Mike Shambaugh, who is on the commission and is a police chief in Jay, Okla. “Our goal is to maintain our sovereignty and close jurisdictional gaps while ensuring continued justice.”

Cherokee Nation criminal code regarding the Controlled Substance Act is now more consistent with state law, so tribal citizens will not be penalized for acts that are legal under Oklahoma law. This will help tribal citizens and business owners in the cannabis industry avoid tribal criminal prosecution if they are fully complying with Oklahoma law.

The tribe is also allocating $10 million in additional spending on law enforcement, prosecution, and for the tribal courts.

“This funding is necessary to ensure that the Cherokee Nation’s government is prepared to deal with the increase in criminal cases expected as a result of the McGirt decision,” Attorney General Sara Hill said. “The Cherokee Nation takes seriously its responsibility to address jurisdictional or enforcement gaps on the Cherokee Nation’s reservation, and is committed to doing so in a way that protects and preserves our hard-fought sovereignty.”

The spending increase will be considered by the full Tribal Council next month.

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