Federal Crime of the Week – Embezzlement and theft from Indian tribal organizations

Mississippi was once home to at least eight major Native American tribes.  Sparing you from an extended history lesson, most of these cultures were forced out of Mississippi in the late nineteenth century, and although the tribes are not extinct, most of them survive only in reservations in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas.  There is only one federally-recognized Indian tribe left in Mississippi today, and of course that tribe is the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.  The Choctaw reservation in Mississippi consists of approximately 35,000 acres scattered throughout central and eastern Mississippi, and the Mississippi Choctaw population approaches 10,000 people.

Stealing from a recognized Indian tribe can get you into a “special” kind of trouble with the feds.  It is, of course, illegal to embezzle or steal from anyone, but it has been recognized by the Supreme Court that Congress has “plenary power” (LOTS of power) to deal with the special problems of Indians.  Morton v. Mancari, 417 U.S. 535, 551 (1974).  Congress used this power in 1956 to make theft from an Indian organization illegal.  At the time the law was passed, the stated purpose was to protect the tribes from dishonest or corrupt tribal officials.  In other words, to protect the tribes from themselves.  But the statute begins with the words “Whoever embezzles, steals, knowlingly converts to his use . . . ,” so it is obvious that the statute applies to everyone.


What are the elements of stealing from an Indian tribe?


  1. embezzles, steals, knowingly converts to his use or the use of another, willfully misapplies, or willfully permits to be misapplied
  2. any money, funds, credits, goods, assets, or other property belonging to any Indian tribal organization or intrusted to the custody or care of any officer, employee, or agent of an Indian tribal organization;

Or whoever:

  1. knowing any such moneys, funds, credits, goods, assets, or other property to have been so embezzled, stolen, converted, misapplied or permitted to be misapplied
  2. receives, conceals, or retains the same with intent to convert it to his use or the use of another

Faces the following punishments if convicted:

  1. If the amount stolen is under $1000.00, possible imprisonment for no more than one year, and a fine – this is a federal misdemeanor
  2. If the amount stolen is $1000.00 or more, possible imprisonment for up to five years, and a fine – this is a federal felony.

If you are accused of this crime, the normal defenses associated with theft crimes are available to you, and sometimes crimes related to Indian reservations have some interesting jurisdictional issues that may be raised as well.  Also, this is a “specific intent” crime, which means that the prosecution may be able to prove that you embezzled funds, but if they cannot prove that you knew who the funds actually belonged to, then you may not be guilty of this specific crime.  This crime happens more frequently than you might think.  My office is only 45 minutes away from the reservation, so if you need my assistance I’ll be glad to consult with you.