Published: February 1, 2013
Two families from the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana can proceed with a lawsuit against an F.B.I. agent that accuses him of failing to properly investigate crimes against Native Americans on and around the reservation, the United States Supreme Court has ruled.
The court’s decision upholds a 2010 federal court ruling that said the F.B.I. agent, Matthew Oravec, did not have qualified immunity from legal action, a protection usually given to government employees when acting in an official capacity — and a status sought by the Justice Department, which had appealed the ruling by the Ninth District Court of Appeals.
“The decision puts federal and state law enforcement agents on notice that they may be held personally liable if they discriminate against Indians in investigating crimes against them,” said Patricia S. Bangert, a Denver lawyer who is representing one of the families.
The Supreme Court’s decision was dated Jan. 14, but lawyers were only recently made aware of it.
Mr. Oravec, who remains an F.B.I. employee, investigated the deaths of two Native Americans, Robert Springfield and Steven Bearcrane, who died in unrelated episodes on the Crow Reservation in 2004 and 2005, respectively.
Federal prosecutors did not file charges in either case, and the men’s families sued, alleging that Mr. Oravec had conducted a second-rate investigation, which they said was part of a wider problem of discrimination against Native American crime victims on the reservation.
The lawsuit also claimed that Mr. Oravec had sought to intimidate family members, made derogatory remarks about Native Americans and had refused to carry out basic investigative tasks, including interviewing potential witnesses or taking crime scene photographs.
The Justice Department, which is representing Mr. Oravec, declined to comment.
The rate of violent crime on Indian reservations has for decades been far higher than in the rest of the nation. Most tribes, including the Crow Nation, rely on the federal government to investigate and prosecute serious crime because states generally lack jurisdiction there, and because tribes are prohibited from imposing sentences longer than three years.
But many Native Americans say that the crime problem in Indian country is connected to the failure of F.B.I. agents and federal prosecutors to take violent acts on reservations as seriously as they do crimes elsewhere.
The lawsuit is being closely watched around Indian country. Filed in 2009, it maintains that federal officials violated the Fifth Amendment, guaranteeing equal protection and due process rights. In its 2010 ruling, the Ninth Circuit Court dropped several other F.B.I. agents and federal prosecutors from the lawsuit but allowed the claim against Mr. Oravec to continue.
Steven Bearcrane, 24, was fatally shot on a ranch on the reservation in 2005, but federal officials determined the shooting had been committed in self-defense and declined to prosecute. But Mr. Bearcrane’s parents, Earline Cole and Cletus Cole, said that Mr. Oravec had conducted only a cursory investigation before arriving at his conclusion.
Ms. Bangert, who is representing the Bearcrane-Cole family, said they had offered to dismiss the lawsuit if the federal government agreed to allow a third party to conduct an independent investigation, but that the government had declined.
“All the Bearcrane-Cole family has wanted is for Steven’s death to mean something,” Ms. Bangert said. “The government’s continuing action in brushing it off as a nonevent that can just be ignored is the continuing fuel for much of the family’s anger and anguish.”
In 2004, Robert Springfield failed to return from a bow hunting trip on the Crow reservation. His wife, Veronica Springfield, said the F.B.I. had not bothered to look for him, and his body was found more than a year later.