The Utah Supreme Court has reinstated the poaching convictions of three Uintah County men who had claimed their American Indian heritage placed them out of Utah's jurisdiction, finding, instead, that the men were not American Indians.
In an opinion issued Tuesday, the state's high court found that although the shooting of two bucks during the 2002 deer hunting season occurred in American Indian country, the hunters are not members of a federally recognized tribe and were hunting without licenses.
Rickie Reber was found guilty by a jury of one felony count of assisting in the wanton destruction of wildlife when his 13-year-old son shot and killed a trophy buck. Reber appealed his conviction, claiming he had a 4 percent blood tie to the federally unrecognized Uintah band and thus did not need a hunting permit.
The appeal was linked to two other men, who were charged with class A misdemeanors for similar actions in the shooting of a nontrophy buck. The Utah Court of Appeals overturned Reber's conviction and that of the two other men, stating that because the deer were shot within American Indian country, the Ute Tribe was the victim and the state did not have jurisdiction.
However, in its ruling Tuesday, justices said wildlife does not belong to anyone and therefore these were "victimless" crimes. Because none of the three men were members of a federally recognized tribe, they cannot be considered American Indians under Utah's laws.
Assistant Utah attorney general Joanne Slotnik said the supreme court's opinion brings Utah in line with federal law. The ruling impacts more than 2 million acres of Indian country in Utah and restores hunting jurisdiction back to the state for non-American Indian hunters.
The high court has restored Reber's conviction. Reber was sentenced to a suspended sentence of up to five years and was ordered to pay the state $4,000 in restitution with a $1,250 fine. The two other hunters, Tex Atkins and Steven Thunehorst, now face up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine for their misdemeanor charges.
Slotnik said the ruling also clarifies that the Uintah band, whose members claim to be splintered from the Ute ribe, is not a federally recognized tribe.