in legal fight with tribe
Havre Daily News
ROCKY BOY'S INDIAN RESERVATION - The Rocky Boy tribal court Friday allowed Village Grocery store owner Debbie St. Pierre about two weeks to respond to the tribe's decision to revoke her business license in a dispute over cigarette taxes.
Her store will remain open at least until that time, when she will present the court with a written argument defending her right to keep the license.
The court has asked for a response from St. Pierre by May 26. A brief battle took place in court Friday before Judge Jim Morsette allowed St. Pierre the extra time. Once St. Pierre and her new attorney, Robert LaFountain of Billings, respond, the tribe will have time to prepare its response, Morsette said.
In mid-April, tribal police confiscated the cigarettes from St. Pierre's store, saying that she was selling them illegally without paying the tribe's 55-cent tobacco tax. They also alleged that she was selling cigarettes without the required state tax stamp.
St. Pierre has been fighting the tax since a 50-cent increase was passed on Jan. 6, saying it was adopted illegally. She also said she can sell cigarettes without a state tax stamp and can buy cigarettes from wherever she likes. She won't say where she's been purcashing cigarettes.
An agreement with the state allows the tribe an allotment of 18,000 cartons free of state tax that must be purchased from one of two designated retailers. St. Pierre used up her allotment of 1,000 cartons through the tribe in early March. Since that time, the tribe has given the entire allotment to a new tribally owned smoke shop, Past Time, and said that any retailer on the reservation would have to purchase cigarettes wholesale through Past Time. St. Pierre, the only private seller of cigarettes on the reservation, is not buying her cigarettes from Past Time.
On May 5, St. Pierre was notified that the tribe had revoked her business license because of her failure to pay $5,500 in taxes. The tribe asked for a hearing the following day and St. Pierre asked that it be postponed. She was given until Friday.
Tribal attorney Daniel Belcourt on Friday asked for an expedited hearing, saying the matter was too "important" to wait.
But St. Pierre's attorney, LaFountain, said the tribe's business code does not list importance as a reason to expedite a hearing. LaFountain said the code allows an expedited hearing if the "business presents a danger to the health" or morals of tribal members.
LaFountain also said the business code allows for due process in the case of a tribal member who is denied a business license, so it also should allow due process in the case of revocation of a license. In the tribal code, that means 20 days to respond, hence the May 26 date.
LaFountain said a denial of the extension, especially when it involves St. Pierre's livelihood, would be "a violation of (St. Pierre's) equal protection and due process."
Belcourt told Morsette that Friday was St. Pierre's day in court.
"We are not in the business of taking away people's livelihood," he said, prompting chuckles among the about 20 spectators in the courtroom. But Belcourt did not dispute LaFountain's interpretation of the business code.
LaFountain gave a preview of some of the arguments he said he would use to defend St. Pierre, but he said they needed the full 20 days to develop them. He said that according to the business license, failure to pay taxes can result in fines, not revocation of the license. He said that for St. Pierre to have her day in court, she must also have a chance to raise a question about the legality of the tax issue.
He said he would need time to decide whether to raise a question about the impartiality of the court since, he said, two tribal court judges are directly related to tribal council members.
"Is there an appearance of impropriety? ... Well, I don't know and I'm not saying there is today," LaFountain told Morsette.
Belcourt asked the court Friday to order St. Pierre to pay the $5,500 the tribe is asking for into a secure bank account pending the court's decision. Any amount the court decided she should be reimbursed would be paid out of that account, Belcourt said.
But LaFountain said St. Pierre disagrees with the amount. She says some of her 1,000-carton allotment was obtained before the tribe passed the tax increase. LaFountain said that could mean as much as a 50 percent difference from the amount the tribe is seeking.
Morsette said he did not see any reason to make St. Pierre pay the amount before the court determined if or how much St. Pierre might owe.
Before Jan. 6, the tribe charged a 5-cent tobacco tax on each pack of cigarettes. St. Pierre said she has paid that since she bought Village Grocery in 1990.
St. Pierre said in an interview last month that she never collected the 50-cent tax increase from customers. She said last week that she did collect the additional tax for several weeks, but stopped collecting it after she consulted with an attorney and a state official who, she said, told her not to collect it.
St. Pierre said she paid the tax she did collect to the tribe.
Mindy Henderson in the tribal finance office said the tribe didn't receive any of the additional 50-cent tax from St. Pierre.