The Utah Court of Appeals on Thursday overturned three deer poaching convictions, ruling the state lacks the jurisdiction to prosecute the crimes because they occurred in "Indian Country" and the Ute Tribe - not the state - was the victim.
"The state asserts that it was the victim in this case, and because the state is not an Indian, state courts have jurisdiction over the offense," the ruling said. "The state, however, is not the victim."
The Utah Attorney General plans to seek a rehearing, contending the court based its ruling on a legal issue that had not been the focus of the appeal.
"The primary issue before the Court of Appeals was whether [the poaching defendant] was an Indian for the purposes of criminal jurisdiction," said Joanne Slotnik, an assistant attorney general assigned to the case. "Instead of answering this question, the Court of Appeals focused on who the victim was, an issue that was not fully briefed by the parties."
Slotnik said the court erred in "using the term 'Indian Country' in a very broad way. It is understandable that they misunderstood the law in this area because it is extremely complex and they did not have the benefit of a full briefing."
The ruling by the three-judge panel stems from the 8th District Court conviction of Rickie L. Reber for aiding in the killing of a trophy mule buck in 2002 on Uintah County land that is part of Indian Country, although outside Ute Tribal Lands and is managed by the state.
Reber lacked a permit, license and a tag for the animal, according to state wildlife law enforcement officials. Reber contended his case should be dismissed because he is an Indian and was on Indian lands.
In a separate but similar poaching case, defendants Tex William Atkins and Steven Paul Thunehorst agreed to abide by whatever ruling came in the Reber case, according to the court of appeals.
Attorneys representing the Ute Indian Tribe were unavailable for comment.