Appeals court bars tribal citizen from entering county in Michigan

Baraga County in Michigan. Photo: Jimmy Emerson

A citizen of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community who has been in trouble with the law for much of the past decade will not be allowed to return home for another nine years.

But unlike other high-profile banishment and disenrollment disputes, Eugene Rantanen's punishment was not of his tribe's doing. Instead he asked to be barred from entering Baraga County in Michigan because he was always getting into trouble there.

“I’ve got to remove myself from that area,” Rantanen once said after pleading guilty to yet another offense in 2014, according to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Rantanen, though, had a change in heart after that ordeal and sought to return back to the county, where his tribe is based. But a three-judge panel of the court wasn't having it.

"Exile is not a pleasant experience," Judge Danny Julián Boggs wrote in the March 29 decision, citing a Bible verse, a Roman poet, Dante's Paradiso and Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as proof. "Yet its purpose in the case before us was less punitive than preventive."

If Rantanen shows improvement -- he has sought substance abuse treatment numerous times only to fall "off the wagon" after returning home -- he could ask for the restriction to be lifted, the court said. Otherwise, there is no reason to disturb the conditions imposed on his sentence.

"Rantanen was using drugs and alcohol and then committing crimes while under their influence," the decision stated. "He had a history of repeatedly violating court orders and making poor decisions in Baraga County."

Rantanen's saga began back in 2008, when he was 18 years old and charged for sexually abusing a minor. He was convicted and sentenced to 4.75 years in prison for the crime, which occurred on the reservation.

He challenged the proceedings but the 6th Circuit, in a March 2012 decision, affirmed his conviction and sentence.

Rantanen, who will be turning 29 next week, completed his prison term in November 2013 but was still under ten years of supervised release. Upon his return home, he had numerous contacts with the justice system in Indian Country -- an arrest in June 2014, a guilty plea in January 2015 followed by a short stint in prison, a return to prison six months later, a sentence restriction in December 2015 based on drug abuse concerns and another arrest in January 2016 in connection with a series of crimes to which he pleaded guilty.

The last proceeding was the one when Rantanen asked to be barred from Baraga County. His attorney even brought up a medical assessment that backed up the request.

"After he is done with whatever additional prison time, he would do well not to return to the Baraga County area, and there are a lot of bad influences awaiting him there," a doctor at a substance abuse treatment facility wrote in the assessment, the court's decision read.

Baraga County is located in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The areas around the communities of Baraga and L'Anse are where Rantanen kept getting into trouble. Both are located on the reservation.

6th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision:
U.S. v. Rantanen (March 29, 2017)