Only he wasn't in a county courtroom governed by state law. Instead, he was in a hall of justice established by the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, a necessary component for enforcing tribal law.
Finder's keepers? Hardly. By taking the money instead of turning the ticket over to a security guard, the casino visitor had violated the tribe's code of conduct. Charged with a civil infraction, the common denominator for casino patrons who commit such offenses whether they're tribal members or not, he agreed to pay a $280 fine and make $139 restitution, at a rate of $50 per week.
It wasn't disclosed in the small courtroom nestled among buildings at the Pokagon Band's Sink Road headquarters specifically how the ticket taker's actions came to the attention of casino officials. However, David Peterson, the associate judge who handled the case, made it clear in a Tribune interview that relatively few activities in a casino go undetected.
"You can't do much of anything, outside of bathrooms, without being viewed on videotape," he said.
Attorneys are optional
The offending patron appeared before Peterson without an attorney, which might be considered unusual but in fact is par for the course with civil violations committed on the tribe's more than 3,000 acres of trust land in New Buffalo, Dowagiac and Hartford, Mich. There was no attorney either for a Kalamazoo woman, also a non-Indian, who was fined $250 for walking off with a casino promotional item that belonged to another casino patron, nor was legal counsel present for a tribal member accused of violating a casino exclusion order. His case was continued, after he conferred with tribal Prosecutor Annette
Relatively minor offenses like those involving the non-Indians who were fined by Peterson wind up in tribal court far more often than not but could be settled in state courts as well. But as Peterson pointed out, the most likely result even in state court would a fine, which likely would be heavier than the one handed down in tribal court, thanks to mandated state costs.
A retired Berrien County judge, Peterson is one of several judges employed by the Pokagons. Michael Petoskey, a resident of Traverse City, Mich., is chief judge, and three other judges serve on an appeals court. Petoskey handles child support cases often involving the enforcement of orders imposed by state courts, plus child abuse and neglect cases. Peterson takes care of casino cases and civil matters that come up on the tribe's trust lands.
Cooperation is key
Keeping order on those lands held in trust for the tribe by the federal government, both Petoskey and Peterson said, demands cooperation with state and federal authorities largely because the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968 limits the extent of punishment imposed by tribal courts. The harshest penalty a tribal court can invoke is three years' incarceration and a $15,000 fine, which means
more serious offenses such as murder and embezzlement of large sums of money are shifted to state or perhaps federal courts. That way, there's assurance the penalty will fit the crime.
Although non-Indians accused of civil violations often show up in tribal courts, tribes have criminal jurisdiction over tribal members only, and even then the offense must have taken place on trust land. A recent amendment to the Indian Civil Rights Act, however, does allow for a pilot project in which non-Indians can be tried in tribal courts in certain domestic violence incidents.
The Pokagon band's court system is almost as new as its casinos. It's included in the tribe's constitution, adopted in 2005 or 11 years after the federal government reaffirmed the tribe's standing as a federally recognized tribe.
An Odawa who's also a tribal judge for the Gun Lake Band of Potawatomi near Grand Rapids, Petoskey said he has worked at various times for all seven Indian tribes in Michigan's Lower Peninsula and has been impressed by how they've written their codes of conduct to protect their particular communities. All have come a long way in a relatively short time, he said.
'Starting from nothing'
"The real interesting work for me has been starting from nothing," said Petoskey, whose first client after law school was the Pokagon band. That was in 1983, when the tribe looked for assistance negotiating its long road toward reaffirmation.