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United States v. Corrow

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Ray, a Navajo religious sing, participated in religious ceremonies and would wear ceremonial masks at the ceremonies. When Ray passed away, Defendant, an owner of an artifact store, purchased the masks from Ray’s widow, Fannie for $10,000. Defendant told Fannie he would retain the masks and send them to a Navajo chanter. Nonetheless, Defendant tried to sell the masks to a buyer, who was an under cover agent for $70,000. Plaintiff, the United States, charged Defendant will illegally trafficking in Native American cultural items and selling protected feathers, under 18 U.S.C. § 1170 and the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    If a law prohibits the buying and selling of cultural artifacts that a tribe deems to be inalienable, a law will not be deemed to be void for vagueness, even if the tribe disagrees with whether the cultural artifacts are inalienable.

    Facts.

    When Ray Winnie, a Navajo religious singer, participated in religious ceremonies, Ray would wear ceremonial masks. Upon Ray’s death, Richard Corrow (“Defendant”), owner of a cultural artifacts store, bought the masks from Ray’s widow, Fannie, for $10,000. Defendant told Fannie he would retain the masks sacredness by sending them to a Navajo chanter. Defendant tried to sell the masks to a buyer, who was an undercover agent, for $70,000. Subsequently, the United States government (“Plaintiff”) charged Defendant with illegally trafficking in Native American cultural items and selling protected feathers, under 18 U.S.C. § 1170 and the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (“NAGPRA”). Pursuant to Title 18 U.S.C. § 1170(b), one may not knowingly sell or purchase for profit of a cultural item when it is obtained in violation of NAGPRA. Pursuant to Section 3001(3) of NAGPRA, a “cultural item” is a “cultural patrimony,” in part an object that was not previously owned by an individual Native American and could not be alienated, appropriated, or transferred by an individual. In trial, cultural experts established conflicting testimony regarding the alienability of the masks. Nonetheless, neither expert provided testimony indicating that it was acceptable for one to sell the masks to non-Navajos, who would later resell them for profit. Moreover, all experts provided evidence establishing that the masks that are sacred resided within the tribe’s four sacred mountains. The district court held Defendant was knowledgeable about Native traditions and Native culture because of Defendant’s representation to Fannie that he would transfer the masks to a chanter. Additionally, the expert testified that she had reminded Defendant of NAGPRA and the Navajo Nation’s procedures to return cultural items. Further, a jury found and convicted Defendant of trafficking and possession of protected feathers. Upon Defendant’s appeal, Defendant alleged that the definition of “cultural patrimony” was not constitutional, as it was unduly vague, as it did not provide the public notice about what specific conduct was prohibited nor did the statute list examples of cultural items.

    Issue.

    Whether a law will be deemed to be void for vagueness if a law prohibits the buying and selling of cultural artifacts that a tribe deems to be inalienable.

    Held.

    No, a law will be deemed to be void for vagueness if a law prohibits the buying and selling of cultural artifacts that a tribe deems to be inalienable, even if the tribe disagrees with whether the cultural artifacts are inalienable.

    Discussion.

    If a law prohibits the buying and selling of cultural artifacts that a tribe deems to be inalienable, a law will not be deemed to be void for vagueness, even if the tribe disagrees with whether the cultural artifacts areinalienable. Although the definition of “cultural patrimony” may be unclear at times, in the present case,it clearly indicates thatDefendantwas on notice that he could not purchase the masks to make a quick profit and avoid criminal consequences. At trial, the evidence indicated that he Defendant was aware that the masks were connected to the Navajo religion and culture. Likewise, Defendant knew about NAGPRA and Navajo customs. Defendant falsely told Fannie that he was going to bring the masks to a chanter. Moreover, there was an absence of expert testimony at trial to indicate that it was acceptable practice for one to sell the masks to non-Navajos who would later resell the masks for profit, the same conduct that § 1170(b) forbids. Instead, all experts at trial testified that the masks were retained within four sacred mountains. Lastly, § 3001(3) of NAGPRA is not invalid because it fails to list examples of cultural items. For a citizen to properly receive due process, a citizen does not need to receive actual notice of all criminal rules and their meanings. The scienter requirement of § 1170(b) diminishes any vagueness or ambiguity by penalizing only those who are aware that their conduct is illegal. Therefore, the district court’s decision is affirmed.


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