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    Indian land may be closed to state

    Critics say a bill to put Miccosukee reservations under federal law will make them a haven for criminals.

    By LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 28, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- A bill that would strip state law enforcement officers of jurisdiction on Indian reservations appears to be on a fast track in the Florida Legislature.

    House and Senate sponsors say the bill applies only to Miccosukee Indian land, but law enforcement officials say it also would apply to Seminole Indian land, allowing the spread of casino gambling and creating havens for criminals.

    "If they pass this law, they will turn the Indian reservations into a campground for criminals and thieves," said Glades County Sheriff Jim Rider. "I have already had armed confrontations between Seminole police and my deputies."

    Rider and other law enforcement officers plan to travel to Tallahassee to oppose the House version of the bill, which is scheduled to be heard Friday. The bill (H 1771), filed by Rep. Ralph Arza, R-Hialeah, appears to be on a very fast track. It was filed Feb. 12 and bypassed all committees before heading to the House Council for Smarter Government, which generally hears only bills that have been heard in a committee.

    A companion bill (S 2248) has been filed in the Senate by Sen. Rudy Garcia, R-Hialeah. It has not been scheduled for a hearing.

    Arza said he grew up close to the Miccosukees and intended the bill to apply only to that tribe.

    "This would treat the Miccosukees reservation as other Indian reservations are treated in the overwhelming majority of states," Arza said.

    Garcia and Arza said they don't intend for the bills to extend gambling to the reservations or allow them to become havens for lawbreakers. They merely want to give the Miccosukees the right to control their own affairs and be subject to federal court jurisdiction.

    But when asked how gambling could be stopped if the state could not enforce the law, Garcia said: "That's a good question."

    Garcia said Miccosukee lobbyists Mike Abrams, Ronnie Book and Dexter Lehtinen and tribal Chairman Billie Cypress asked him to file the bill.

    The Miccosukees were involved in a prolonged battle with state law enforcement authorities after tribal member Kirk Douglas Billie drove a car into a canal in 1997, killing his two children. After years of wrangling, Billie was convicted of second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison a year ago.

    The tribe attempted to circumvent state court, saying its tribal court had jurisdiction even though the crime occurred off the reservation. Leaders of the 500-member tribe said they forgave Billie and denounced his prosecution as "white man's justice."

    The reservation would not be lawless, Arza insisted. Instead it would be controlled by federal law.

    The Florida Sheriff's Association noted that most tribal police lack the experience and expertise to investigate serious state crimes, like rape and murder. Under federal law such crimes could be investigated by the FBI, but they would have to be prosecuted in state courts since ordinary murders and rapes are not federal crimes.

    "Reservations would turn into a safe place for fugitives," said Tom Berlinger of the Sheriff's Association. "We already have trouble now. Kids burglarize a small store and run back on the reservation. Carry that to the extreme and you could have a real mess with non-tribal members going onto the reservation to seek a safe haven from arrest."

    Seminole lobbyist Jack Skelding said the tribe had nothing to do with the bill.

    Officials at the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers said the bills would block investigations of everything from auto accidents to the unlawful practice of medicine on tribal land.

    "It this bill passes, these matters will no longer be handled in Florida courts," the academy noted in a written statement released late Wednesday.

    -- Researcher Stephanie Scruggs contributed to this report.

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    From the Times state desk