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Appellate court rules tribe is victim in hunting case

A 3-year-old hunting dispute may be far from settled, but a ruling last week by the Utah Court of Appeals was good news for the Ute Indian Tribe and a former Uintah Basin man claiming Native American heritage.

The state overturned the criminal conviction against Rick Reber, formerly of Lapoint, for lack of jurisdiction. Reber was arrested for helping his then-13-year-old son take a trophy buck on land within the exterior boundaries of the Ute Indian Reservation between the Hillcreek extension and the Colorado border.

The appellate judges also ruled that the Ute Indian Tribe, not the state of Utah, was the victim. That means the case can still be filed in federal court, should it continue to be pursued.

"It was exactly the issue we had briefed. It was that the state does not have jurisdiction to prosecute this issue. They can prosecute in federal court," said Reber's attorney, Mike Humiston. "It's a huge leap forward because it's clearing the air, it's getting down to brass tacks."

According to Humiston, the way the case was decided by the three-member appellate panel is more a victory for the Ute Tribe than for Reber, but he'll take it.

"It actually says the Ute Tribe owns all the wildlife in the exterior boundaries," Humiston said. "It gave them everything they could want."

Ironically, the tribe had filed a Friend of the Court brief in support of the state and opposing the 53-year-old Reber's claim that his mixed-blood Uinta band heritage gave him the right to hunt and fish on Ute Tribe land without a license. But the appellate judges focused on the issue of jurisdiction, not heritage.

That's one reason why Utah Assistant Attorney General Joanne Slotnik feels the court missed the mark. She plans to file for a rehearing. Slotnik contends the question which needs to be answered is whether Reber — who is 96 percent non-Indian — can still be considered an Indian when it comes to hunting and fishing rights.

"If you look at the briefs, they are almost exclusively focused on whether the defendant is an Indian," said Slotnik. "So we are saying if you want to decide it on the issue of the status of the victim, at least give both sides the opportunity to fully lay out the law on that issue — that's what our petition for rehearing will say."

Slotnik said the "ultimate irony" of the appellate ruling is that the Ute Indian Tribe was not even endorsing the position the court endorsed.

"One of the most interesting aspects of the case is they say the Ute Indian Tribe is the victim and the Ute Indian Tribe never asserted they were the victim," she said. "They filed their friend of the court brief on behalf of the state's position, which was that the state had jurisdiction because the defendant was not an Indian."

In their brief, the tribe said the reservation was created solely for the Utes. Reber's mother was terminated from membership in the tribe in the 1950s. But Reber, who was a toddler when termination occurred, never had his name appear on the termination rolls. He maintains he is Indian and a member of the Uintah band, and as such he claims he is entitled to the same rights as tribal members.

What the appellate court ruling means to Reber, who now resides in Box Elder County, is that his felony conviction is removed from his record. His teenage son, who had similar hunting violations entered against him in juvenile court, also has a clean record because the state lacks jurisdiction. Reber also will get his trophy antlers returned.

"That's the first time we have ever had a fair shot, where it turned around in our favor," said Reber. "My family had been trying for years to get this resolved. Basically what I got back from the ruling was a shocker."

According to Humiston, based on the recent ruling, the state can "let it drop, prosecute it in federal court or take it up on appeal to the Utah Supreme Court."

Humiston contended that Reber held special treaty rights because of his membership in the Uintah band of Ute Indians, but the court did not address that issue. Still, Humiston called the ruling a "solid" one.

"I am going to fight her on a rehearing. If she wants to appeal it, that's different. But they shouldn't be able to get a second bite out of the apple," Humiston said.