Havre Daily News
ROCKY BOY'S INDIAN RESERVATION - After beginning to deliver his opinion in a hearing Wednesday, acting Chief Judge Joe Morsette changed his mind and said he will need a week to decide whether Village Grocery store owner Debbie St. Pierre will lose her business license.
The tribe revoked the license on May 5, saying that St. Pierre owes $5,500 in back taxes. Her store was to remain open until Morsette ruled on the matter. During the hearing, the tribe's lawyer, Dan Belcourt, asked that the court order St. Pierre to pay the tax or support the revocation of her license and close the store.
St. Pierre's lawyer, Robert LaFountain, said St. Pierre would be willing to pay $2,750 and contest the rest of the back taxes, which he said are not owed.
"If they pay, great. We're back in business," Belcourt told the court Wednesday, but he said the tribe is seeking the full amount. St. Pierre had plenty of time to negotiate before, Belcourt said.
The tribe passed a tobacco tax increase of 50 cents on Jan. 6, raising the tax to 55 cents. St. Pierre has refused to pay the tax since it was passed but continued to sell cigarettes. She has paid a 5-cent tax since she took over operation of Village Grocery more than 10 years ago.
LaFountain said the tobacco code was invalid because it had not been approved by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. That approval, he said, is required according to the tribe's constitution.
Belcourt said St. Pierre never contested the code in the past and that the U.S. Department of Interior defers to the tribal council when it comes to setting ordinances. Belcourt submitted a letter to the court from the Department of Interior.
Morsette began to deliver his opinion Wednesday, agreeing with the tribe that the tobacco code is valid.
"I don't find that it's unconstitutional," Morsette said of the tobacco code and the recent amendment increasing the tax. "They could have not acted hastily, enacting it one day and enforcing it the other day," he said of the tribal council.
LaFountain also argued that, according to the tobacco code, failure to pay taxes results in a fine, not in the revocation of a business license. He is asking the court to deny the revocation of St. Pierre's business license.
Morsette did not make any decision as to whether revocation of the business license is an option if taxes are not paid. He was interrupted by LaFountain, who said he was not done making his arguments.
Morsette agreed to listen to further arguments, in which LaFountain said Belcourt had not produced any evidence or witnesses and was relying on hearsay in claiming St. Pierre had not paid the taxes. LaFountain said the burden was on the petitioner, the tribe, to produce proof and asked that the case be dismissed.
"It's unfortunate that the respondent now, at the tail end, offers a motion to dismiss," Belcourt said, noting that Morsette had appeared ready to decide the case.
Morsette did not rule on LaFountain's request to dismiss the case.
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.
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 - the cigarettes the tribe says she owes taxes on. 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. She has not said where she purchased her cigarettes.