United States v. Zepeda

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Indian Law
  • Date Filed: 01-18-2013
  • Case #: 10-10131
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Paez for the Court; Circuit Judge Fernandez; Dissent by Circuit Judge Watford
  • Full Text Opinion

Stipulation of a Tribal Enrollment Certificate was insufficient evidence to establish the defendant’s Indian status for purposes of the defendant’s conviction under the Major Crimes Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1153, which grants federal jurisdiction over enumerated crimes committed by Indians in Indian country.

Damien Zepeda was charged and convicted of nine crimes, including assault with a deadly weapon, under the Major Crimes Act (18 U.S.C. § 1153), which provides federal jurisdiction over particular crimes committed in Indian territory by Indians. The parties stipulated into evidence Zepeda’s Tribal Enrollment Certificate showing that he had an Indian “Blood Degree…of 1/2” from two tribes. Under § 1153, the government must establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is Indian. Zepeda appealed his convictions, arguing that the government had not met its burden of showing that he was Indian beyond a reasonable doubt under § 1153. The Ninth Circuit analyzed the issue under the two-prong test articulated in United States v. Bruce: (1) the degree of the defendant’s Indian blood, and (2) the defendant’s tribal affiliation with a federally recognized tribe. The Court held that a defendant’s Indian status is like any other element of the crime, which must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt for § 1153 to apply; thus, the prosecution bears the burden of proving to the jury that a defendant is Indian under the two-prong Bruce test. The Court ruled that the Tribal Enrollment Certificate did not satisfy the first prong of the Bruce test, because the government did not submit to the jury evidence to show that Zepeda’s bloodline came from a federally recognized Indian tribe. Because the prosecution failed to meet the burden of the first prong, the Court did not rule on whether the government satisfied the second prong. REVERSED in part and REMANDED for resentencing.

Advanced Search