State v. Nobles, ___ N.C. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Feb. 28, 2020)

The defendant did not sufficiently demonstrate that he qualifies as an “Indian” under the federal Indian Major Crimes Act (IMCA) and, consequently, the trial court did not err in refusing to dismiss state murder, robbery, and weapons charges on jurisdictional grounds or in ruling that the jurisdictional issue was not required to be submitted to the jury by means of a special verdict.  The federal Indian Major Crimes Act provides that “[a]ny Indian who commits [an enumerated major crime] against the person or property of another . . . within the Indian country[] shall be subject to . . . the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States.”  In this case, there was no dispute that the shooting at issue took place in “Indian country” as it occurred within the Qualla Boundary and there was no dispute that the resulting charges constituted major crimes for purposes of the IMCA.  The only question was whether the defendant qualified as an “Indian” under the IMCA, which does not provide a definition of that term. 

The court noted that the United States Supreme Court in United States v. Rogers, 45 U.S. 567 (1846) suggested a two-pronged test for analyzing whether a person qualifies as an Indian under the statute.  To qualify as an Indian under the Rogers test, a defendant must (1) have “some Indian blood,” and (2) be “recognized as an Indian by a tribe or the federal government or both.  The parties in this case agreed that the first part of this test was satisfied because the defendant possessed an Indian blood quantum of 11/256 (4.29%).  Noting that it had never applied the Rogers test, the court reviewed the analyses of courts in other jurisdictions as it determined whether the second prong of the test was satisfied.  Finding that a four-factor balancing test enunciated in St. Cloud v. United States, 702 F. Supp. 1456 (D.S.D. 1988) was frequently used in jurisdictions across the country with respect to the second prong of the Rogers test, though with variability in the manner of its application, the court adopted the Eighth and Tenth Circuit’s utilization of the test.  It did so “based on our belief that this formulation of the test provides needed flexibility for courts in determining the inherently imprecise issue of whether an individual should be considered to be an Indian under the second prong of the Rogers test” and also recognized “that, depending upon the circumstances in a given case, relevant factors may exist beyond the four St. Cloud factors that bear on this issue.”  A court applying the four-factor St. Cloud test considers the following factors:

1) enrollment in a tribe; 2) government recognition formally and informally through providing the person assistance reserved only to Indians; 3) enjoying benefits of tribal affiliation; and 4) social recognition as an Indian through living on a reservation and participating in Indian social life.

For various reasons, the court rejected the defendant’s initial arguments that his status as a first descendant of the tribe demonstrated his “tribal or federal recognition” as a matter of law.  The court then proceeded to apply the four St. Cloud factors along with any additional factors relevant to the analysis, noting that the trial court’s findings regarding the defendant’s motion to dismiss had not been specifically challenged on appeal and therefore were binding.  Applying the four-factor balancing test, the court found (1) it was undisputed that the defendant was not enrolled in any federally recognized tribe; (2) the only evidence of governmental assistance to defendant consisted of five incidents of free medical treatment he received as a minor; (3) though he did live and work on or near the Qualla Boundary for fourteen months prior to the murder, there was not evidence that defendant received broader benefits from tribal affiliation or that his employment on the Qualla Boundary was in any way connected to his first descendant status; (4) though the defendant was dating an enrolled tribal member at the time of the murder and had two tattoos depicting his cultural heritage, the defendant self-identified as being “white” on official documents and did not participate in Eastern Band of Cherokee Indian cultural, community, or religious activities.  Turning to whether any other relevant factors existed, such as whether the defendant had ever been subjected to tribal jurisdiction in the past, the court found that there was no evidence of other relevant factors.  With this analysis of the second prong of the Rogers test, a majority of the court held that the trial court properly concluded that the defendant was not an Indian for purposes of the IMCA and properly denied his motion to dismiss.

The court then turned to whether the defendant was entitled to a special jury verdict on the jurisdictional issue and whether the trial court erred by ruling on that issue as a matter of law.  The court distinguished two of its prior cases involving issues of territorial jurisdiction and noted that in this case the defendant did not challenge the facts underlying the jurisdictional determination, a determination the court characterized under these facts as “an inherently legal question properly decided by the trial court.”  The court concluded its analysis of this issue by observing that the dissent failed to cite any authority for the “proposition that in state court proceedings the inapplicability of the IMCA is an element of the crime that must be submitted for resolution by the jury.” 

Justice Earls disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that the defendant was not entitled to a special jury verdict on the question of whether he is an “Indian” under the IMCA, and, assuming that the majority was correct that the question need not be submitted to the jury, disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that the defendant is not an Indian under the IMCA.