Former US Attorney backs review of domestic violence case

Former U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon speaks at the RES DC Summit in Washington, D.C., on June 16, 2015. Photo by Andrew Bahl for Indianz.Com

A former federal prosecutor is supporting the Obama administration's efforts to protect American Indian and Alaska Native women from repeat domestic violence offenders.

Tim Purdon served as U.S. Attorney for North Dakota when the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed that tribal convictions can be used against men who repeatedly abuse Native women. But that July 2011 decision isn't benefiting victims who live in other states with large numbers of tribes.

To ensure that Native women everywhere are protected, the Obama administration is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that conflicts with the one from the 8th Circuit. The Department of Justice filed the petition in US v. Bryant last month.

"The DOJ’s cert petition in U.S. v. Bryant is a vitally important piece in the Obama administration’s continuing efforts to improve public safety in Indian Country, particularly for American Indian women," Purdon said. "Forty-six percent of Native American women report having experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime."

In the 8th Circuit case, Roman Cavanaugh, Jr., a member of the Spirit Lake Dakotah Nation, was charged for beating his common-law wife and threatening to kill her. Three of the couple's children were in the car at the time, according to federal authorities.

Since Cavanaugh had three prior tribal court convictions, he was considered a "habitual" offender under 18 U.S.C. Section 117. Without the law in place, he might not have been indicted in federal court at all for the underlying offense.

"The Cavanaugh rule is an important one in the battle to protect American Indian women from repeat domestic violence and DOJ’s efforts to expand this rule nationwide are an important step," Purdon said of the 8th Circuit's ruling in that case.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals also upheld the use of tribal convictions in a case involving Adam Ray Shavanaux, a member of the Ute Tribe of Utah who was charged for assaulting his domestic partner. He had two prior tribal convictions.

Together, the 8th Circuit, the 9th Circuit and the 10th Circuit represent a significant swath of Indian Country. A decision by the Supreme Court would ensure that Native women and children from more than 500 tribes can be protected by the law.

"This court should grant certiorari to ensure that habitual domestic violence offenders with tribal court convictions are treated the same way under Section 117(a) no matter where they reside." Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. told the justices in the petition.

Both Cavanaugh and Shavanaux had asked the Supreme Court to overturn the decisions in their cases. Cavanaugh's petition was declined without comment in February 2012 and Shavanaux's was declined in March 2012.

Cavanaugh pleaded guilty to his crimes in September of that year. He is now incarcerated at Leavenworth in Kansas and isn't due to be released until November 2018, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

Shavanaux, who was the first person in Utah charged under Section 117(a), also pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 36 months of supervised release in February 2013. However, he violated some conditions of his release and was sentenced to five months in prison in June 2014 and was ordered to undergo substance abuse treatment. He is not currently incarcerated, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

9th Circuit Decisions:
US v. Bryant (July 6, 2015)
US v. Bryant (September 30, 2014)

8th Circuit Decision:
US v. Cavanaugh (July 6, 2011)

10th Circuit Decision:
US v. Shavanaux (July 26, 2011)

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