METH: A constant battle, 'a huge problem'

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series chronicling methamphetamine use on the Yankton Sioux Tribe Reservation in south-central South Dakota. Earlier this year, South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley proclaimed South Dakota is...

Methamphetamine problem (Republic photo illustration)
Methamphetamine problem (Republic photo illustration)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series chronicling methamphetamine use on the Yankton Sioux Tribe Reservation in south-central South Dakota. Earlier this year, South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley proclaimed South Dakota is under a methamphetamine epidemic, and the Department of Justice has reported that Native Americans have the highest rates of meth abuse in the nation.

YANKTON SIOUX TRIBE RESERVATION - Almost three years after forming its own, independent police force, law enforcement on the Yankton Sioux Tribe has identified one issue that stands out from the rest.

That's the prevalence of methamphetamine.

"There is a huge problem here," said Yankton Sioux Tribal Police Chief Christopher Saunsoci. "Our families are close together, and it makes it a huge problem because for us, it's not just somebody we know, but it's our own relatives."

Saunsoci said tribal police make meth-related contacts every week, and he believes the drugs are being trafficked onto the reservation from larger cities like Sioux Falls, Rapid City, Sioux City and Omaha.


In October 2013, the Yankton Sioux Tribe took over responsibility for law enforcement from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, officially forming the Yankton Sioux Tribal Police Department in January 2014. Prior to the switch, law enforcement on the reservation was provided by a collaboration between between the BIA and tribal members.

"All these years, the BIA has been helping us, and they've been doing a good job with helping us, but one of their goals is to make us self-sufficient," Saunsoci said. "We're starting to police our own people, and having local tribal officers gives you more of a stakehold on your area."

Since then, Saunsoci said the number of meth-related arrests made by officers has doubled. Despite multiple requests, the Yankton Sioux Tribal Police did not provide statistics for meth-related incidents and arrests on tribal ground.

While that may be partially attributed to a more effective police force, he said the profligacy of the problem is becoming more apparent.

The department employs nine officers, and Saunsoci said he'd like to double his staff. Fortunately, tribal police and the Wagner Police Department have a close relationship. With a presence in the same town, one department can provide quick assistance to the other.

"It's like having an extra set of eyes and an extra person that has your back," Saunsoci said. "If something should come down to a life-and-death situation, it makes us feel better knowing that we do have somebody there to help us when it come to those situations."

But in most cases, Wagner police cannot enforce laws or make arrests on tribal land, as the reservation is designated as protected federal territory instead of state territory. Tribal police face the same problem on state land.

Giant checkerboard


Since the Yankton Sioux Tribe is made up of parcels of land checkered throughout Charles Mix County and a chunk of Bon Homme County, a suspect can easily find and cross the border and gain temporary immunity until he or she crosses the invisible line again.

Because of the checkerboard pattern, drugs can be easily passed between the reservation and the state, so Saunsoci said tribal police is beginning to work more closely with the Charles Mix Sheriff's Office, and law enforcement officials have had multiple meetings to discuss the issue.

The most recent gathering took place a few weeks ago between representatives of tribal police, Wagner police, the Charles Mix County Sheriff's Office, South Dakota Highway Patrol, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Sens. John Thune and Mike Rounds and Rep. Kristi Noem and local council members to discuss the jurisdiction issue.

"Jurisdiction is the biggest issue," said Tribal Police Lt. Willard Bruguier.

In the meeting - organized by Indian Health Service and Steve Emery, secretary of the South Dakota Department of Tribal Relations and a former Yankton Sioux Tribe judge - the parties discussed how jurisdiction is handled on other reservations, like in Fort Thompson on the Crow Creek Reservation in Buffalo County.

In Fort Thompson, tribal and state officers are allowed to cross reservation lines and operate "under the color of the law," Bruguier said, so they were essentially members of the local law enforcement department for as long as the department requested.

Bruguier said it may be difficult to pass a similar proposal on the Yankton Sioux Reservation, which would require a tribe-wide referendum, because of many tribe members' distrust of state law enforcement, but he believes it is possible.

"That's the ultimate goal, to educate our people and have them understand that just because these guys are wearing a different badge, a different uniform, they'd be down here acting under the color of tribal law trying to help them," Bruguier said.


Seven of nine Yankton Sioux Tribe Council members attended the meeting, but Bruguier said they provided no opinion on the matter.

While having extra eyes would help the situation, Bruguier said it was also important for officers to be personable and develop a rapport with the community, which South Dakota law enforcement may not have developed on the reservation.

Prosecuting the problem

Bruguier has worked for Yankton Sioux Tribal Police for almost 10 years, though he left the area for a few years in 2009. Since returning, he said the methamphetamine problem on the reservation has gotten worse.

"When I left here in 2009, it was nowhere near the problem it is now. It's very, very thick; very heavy every single day," Bruguier said.

While tribal police say the problem is getting worse, the number of drug charges filed with the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of South Dakota, which typically prosecutes felonies on reservations, doesn't reflect the same pattern, as reported by the office's annual report.

In 2015, drug charges were filed against zero defendants from the Yankton Sioux Tribe. In total, only five defendants were charged from the reservation last year, making it the second least-charged reservation in South Dakota, behind Flandreau's three defendants.

By comparison, Pine Ridge saw the most defendants with 153, including nine charged with drug offenses.

Seiler said the numbers may be lower than expected because his office generally deals with larger conspiracy cases, leaving other courts to handle lesser offenses.

"Meth has been identified as one of the major issues in Indian country that we're trying to address on an ongoing basis," said U.S. Attorney Randolph Seiler.

Seiler recalled his office had taken some drug cases from the Yankton Sioux Tribe in 2015, but drug conspiracy investigations, often led by the FBI, take time and may not have been filed yet.

In 2014, the Yankton Sioux Tribe saw eight defendants on felony drug charges, five in 2013, zero in 2012, zero in 2011 and one in 2010, according to annual reports.

Seiler said possession charges, which may only be a misdemeanor under federal law, may be handled by the state's attorney - if part of the offense occurred on state land - or Tribal Prosecutor Cecily Sternhagen.

Over the past few years, Sternhagen's load of drug cases has risen. In 2013, she filed 10 misdemeanor drug charges. In 2014, there were six. The total rose in 2015 to 21, and 2016 thus far has seen eight.

Meanwhile, felony drug charges have risen more dramatically in Charles Mix County over the past few years. According to the Unified Judicial System, the county saw 19 felony drug charges in 2014, 39 in 2015, and there have been 41 so far in 2016.

The tribal misdemeanors are defined by a meth code passed by the tribe in 2012 that outlined meth-specific statutes. They are punishable upon conviction by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

In federal court, felony drug penalties can span from a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine for basic meth possession to a mandatory life sentence for someone convicted of two or more prior felony drug offenses.

Comparatively, possession of an ordinary amount of methamphetamine in South Dakota is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Possession of drug paraphernalia is punishable by 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Protecting health and safety

Urban Institute, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., has recommended South Dakota reduce its controlled substance laws to a misdemeanor, like the federal law, but the proposal has faced opposition from South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley.

"Any attempt to decriminalize or turn serious felony drug possession or ingestion into a low-level misdemeanor would unnecessarily place the public's health and safety at risk," Jackley said in May. "The public would be better served by strengthening our prevention, enforcement and treatment efforts, including focusing on a strong anti-meth and heroin campaign."

On Monday, Jackley announced the "NO. METH. EVER." campaign, a competition among college and university students to create public service announcements against meth and other dangerous substances.

Charles Mix County Sheriff Randy Thaler also resisted the proposal, saying a misdemeanor charge wouldn't discourage people from using meth. He added that marijuana was a "stepping stone" to other drug use and must also be prosecuted seriously.

"We need to be strict on all the drug laws and not be sitting back and saying, 'Well, marijuana's not a problem,' " Thaler said. "We need to be hard on the enforcement of all illegal drugs."

Sternhagen said her prosecution numbers may be lower than expected because there aren't enough police officers to patrol the area, offenders may be refusing urinalysis tests and some cases get tied up as abuse and neglect cases, which are closed from public record, but she believes the problem is improving.

"We've got a significant amount of officers, where we had five or six in the years of 2013 or 2014," Sternhagen said. "Now we have nine officers that are able to be out on the road and patrolling. We also have officers being proactive and going out and getting vehicle stops that weren't occurring because of the limited staffing."

And Sternhagen believes the issue can improve more as departments collaborate toward a solution.

"We're optimistic that we can put together some strategic planning within the next year to combat the meth issue," Sternhagen said.

Court limits

The court system becomes more complex when a "non-Indian" commits a crime on tribal land. According to University of South Dakota Law Professor Frank Pommersheim, the United States Supreme Court decided in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe that tribes had no criminal jurisdiction over "non-Indian" people.

What defines an "Indian" person is up for debate, however. Some consider tribal members to be Indian, while others believe Native Americans who are not tribal members also fit into the classification and so could be prosecuted under tribal court, Pommersheim said.

The federal statute that guides much of Native American law is the Major Crimes Act, passed in 1885, which places certain crimes under federal jurisdiction if they are committed by Native Americans in Indian Country. However, there has never been a case brought to the Supreme Court to define who could be considered "Indian," Pommersheim said.

"That's an area that's very tricky in Indian law where you have the distinction between someone who is, by conventional terms, racially an Indian as compared to someone who is a tribal member," Pommersheim said.

If "Indian" is classified as a political affiliation - namely as tribal members - the federal government potentially has more authority to pass laws because they are not being made on the basis of race.

Another law, the Indian Civil Rights Act, limits jail time issued in tribal court to a maximum of one year, but Sternhagen said first-offenders don't receive the maximum penalty, as the Yankton Sioux tribal code limits the sentence that can be issued for a first-offense drug user.

That's comparable to South Dakota's much-discussed Senate Bill 70, also known as the Public Safety Improvement Act.

Senate Bill 70 established presumptive probation, in which judges are asked to place nonviolent, low-level felony offenders on probation instead of sending them to prison, but the bill has been criticized by some as shifting the expense from state prisons to county jails, as well as increasing the workload for law enforcement who deal with repeat offenders.

But Judge Steven Jensen, who presides over South Dakota's first circuit - which spans 14 counties from Buffalo to Union - said the bill balances punishment with rehabilitation, and a chance on probation may help determine which offenders will be better served by prison time.

"That's the big issue is really trying to figure out who's going to be violent and who's not," Jensen said. "I know the system isn't perfect, but I think it strikes a pretty good balance right now."

But in an area like Charles Mix County where state land and Indian country is intertwined, probation may spawn another problem. If a tribal member commits a crime on state land and is placed on probation, the person is free to return to his or her home on the reservation, where state law enforcement have no authority to make an arrest if the person violates.

Sheriff Thaler said methamphetamine has become the "drug of choice" and is more prominent than in the past, and drug users are "constantly" moving between the jurisdictions, yet judges have taken the probation concept "to the extreme."


What disappoints Thaler about Senate Bill 70, though, is the lack of treatment programs in the area that were promised by the bill.

"Local entities were told that the state was going to bring these programs to the local communities to get those people reformed or rehabilitated, and I haven't seen any new ones come within my county, yet," Thaler said.

A Hope Court program, which requires frequent urinalysis tests from participants, has been implemented, but it is considered by many to be a cheaper alternative to the more effective Drug Court in place in larger towns, like Mitchell.

While Senate Bill 70 only affects state land, Tribal Police Chief Saunsoci is also hoping to see better programs for rehabilitation on the Yankton Sioux reservation.

The tribe built a new jail about a year ago, allowing the tribe to house its own prisoners instead of contracting with Charles Mix County. While inmates are serving their time, Saunsoci would like to have more programs available both inside and outside the jail to prevent prisoners from reoffending after their release, but that requires cooperation with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which retains control of the tribe's correctional system, and no plans have been put in place.

Rehabilitation is important for the community because police often come across drug users only after they've committed a violent crime, Saunsoci said, which means drug users are hurting more than themselves.

"They kind of go hand in hand, really," Saunsoci said of drugs and violence.

Ultimately, Lt. Bruguier said methamphetamine use is the greatest problem facing the reservation. While alcohol use is also quite prevalent, it doesn't lead to the same level of violence as meth dependency, he said.

"Now that meth has introduced itself - meth has always been around, but now that it's heavy, our violent crimes have increased a lot. It's not (victimless). Not at all," Bruguier said. "Addicts need to have it, and hurting somebody or hurting property, they have no qualms about doing that."

But regardless of decisions made regarding jurisdiction or sentences issued by the court, Bruguier said he tells his fellow officers one thing.

"You just let them do their job, and you do yours."

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