Bison at Sandia Pueblo in New Mexico. Photo: Steve Valasek

Federal judge confirms land within reservation in New Mexico is Indian Country

A tribal citizen who was convicted of second-degree murder was rightfully prosecuted in federal court, a federal judge in New Mexico has concluded.

Jeffrey Antonio, 35, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, went to trial last month in connection with a fatal drunken driving incident that occurred on another tribe's reservation. But he claimed the crash site was not Indian Country, meaning that the federal government couldn't prosecute him.

Judge James O. Browning ruled otherwise. In an lengthy decision issued on Monday, he said the July 2015 offense took place on land that was set aside for the Pueblo of Sandia nearly 270 years ago.

So it does not matter that the land where the head-on collision occurred fell into non-Indian ownership and later became a state highway, Browning wrote. The Indian Pueblo Land Act Amendments of 2005 link federal jurisdiction to the original boundaries of the Sandia Reservation, he said.

"Accordingly, the court has jurisdiction over this matter, because: Congress affixed criminal jurisdiction in the Sandia Pueblo to the exterior boundaries of the 1748 grant that Congress confirmed," Browning wrote in the 56-page decision, a copy of which was posted by Turtle Talk.

An aerial view of the Pueblo of Sandia. The July 31, 2015, crash at issue in Jeffrey Antonio's case occurred on the highway shown in the lower right. Image: Google Earth

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Antonio had been drinking prior to the incident on July 31, 2015. His blood alcohol level was 0.19, more than twice the legal limit. Authorities also found a pack of beer in his vehicle.

Antonio struck another vehicle head-on, causing the death of the passenger, who was described as "Jane Doe" in court documents. The driver also suffered injuries.

"During the trial, the jury learned that Antonio has two prior convictions for driving under the influence of alcohol; one in 2008 and another in 2011, which required that Antonio complete a first offender program," the U.S. Attorney's Office. "The program incorporates educational aspects of the risks associated with driving while impaired."

The incident occurred at the intersection of New Mexico Highway 313 and Wilda Dr. The highway is located on land that was granted to a non-Indian following the original grant to the Pueblo of Sandia in 1748.

Despite the change in ownership, the Indian Pueblo Land Act Amendments contain a key phrase. A land grant from a "prior sovereign" -- in this case, the King of Spain -- is recognized as a reservation so long as Congress, or the United States Court of Private Land Claims, confirmed the grant. Congress did just that for the Pueblo of Sandia in 1858.

A jury convicted Antonio following a three-day trial in April, according to federal court records. A date for sentencing has not been set. Second-degree murder carries a maximum of life in prison.