SIOUX FALLS — Federal bootlegging charges against several people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation were filed in part because of concerns raised by community members, the top federal prosecutor for South Dakota said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of South Dakota announced last week that five people had pleaded not guilty in federal court in February to charges of possessing and selling alcohol on the dry reservation, where alcoholism is rampant.
"Nationally, it is pretty unique when a U.S. Attorney's Office brings bootlegging charges, but here, given the impact it has on the community, I felt it was appropriate to do it," said U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson.
Separate trials are set for May 1 for Marnie Water, Darrell Spotted Elk Sr., Florine Chipps, Merle Leighton Sr. and Julia Marie Lamont. Each faces a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Tribal courts typically handle cases involving alcohol, Johnson said, but a federal prosecutor may decide to take over a case depending on the specifics involved, such as the quantity of alcohol.
"It's case by case," he said. "Oftentimes they're most appropriately prosecuted in tribal court."
Court records show the indictments are from December incidents in Wanblee, Porcupine and the village of Pine Ridge.
Mark Salter, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said the indictments were the result of a joint operation between the Oglala Sioux Tribe's police department and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Office of Justice Services that targeted bootlegging.
Johnson declined to comment on whether more people would be charged but said any criminal case is not related to a civil case filed by tribal government on the reservation.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe has sued several beer makers, including Anheuser-Busch InBev Worldwide and MillerCoors LLC, saying they are knowingly contributing to alcohol-related problems on the Pine Ridge reservation.
The lawsuit, filed last month in the U.S. District Court of Nebraska, seeks $500 million in damages for the cost of health care, social services and child rehabilitation caused by chronic alcoholism on the reservation, located in some of the poorest counties in the country.
The lawsuit also targets four beer stores in Whiteclay, Neb., a town near the reservation's border. Whiteclay, which has about a dozen residents, sold nearly 5 million cans of beer in 2010, according to the federal lawsuit.
Johnson said he thinks alcohol will continue to be a problem on the reservation but is hopeful about changes tribal leaders are making.