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Tribal Affairs

An On-Duty BIA Officer Raped A Woman. Can The Agency Be Held Liable?

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A federal appeals court considering the case of a woman who was raped by a Bureau of Indian Affairs officer is asking Montana’s Supreme Court to determine whether law-enforcement agencies in the state can be held liable when their on-duty officers sexually assault someone.

The question from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals stems from a 2018 federal case in which former BIA officer Dana Bullcoming coerced and impregnated a Northern Cheyenne woman after threatening to arrest her.

The woman, identified only by her initials in court documents, sued Bullcoming, the BIA and the federal government for damages and to help pay for child support. A federal judge found that Bullcoming was liable for the rape and awarded the woman $1.6 million.

However, the judge found that the federal government, including the BIA, was not liable for Bullcoming’s actions. That’s different from Montana laws, which allow local law enforcement agencies to be held liable for the actions of their on-duty officers.

In the Ninth Circuit’s question to the state Supreme Court filed Monday, they write this federal policy creates a dichotomy that likely has a disproportionate effect on Montana’s Indigenous population, who are more likely to interact with federal officers.

In a separate criminal case, Bullcoming pleaded guilty in 2018 to deprivation of rights under the color of law. He was sentenced to three years in prison, followed by three years of probation.

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