Misinformed by "fictional jurisdiction": how the court aligned with overturned authority in State v. Medicine Eagle and why the state's information error should be viewed as harmless.

AuthorBrost, Ashley R.
PositionCase overview

In State v. Medicine Eagle, the Supreme Court of South Dakota held that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to sentence Gabriel Medicine Eagle as a habitual offender due to an information filing error. The State filed a Part II Information, amended it, and then, per the defendant's request, dismissed the amended version with the intent of reverting back to the original. The court, aligning itself with overturned Supreme Court of the United States authority, held that this chain of events left the court without an information to proceed with enhanced sentencing, and conclusively stripped the court of its power to adjudicate the habitual offender proceedings. The Supreme Court of South Dakota erred by relying on an overly broad, "fictional" version of jurisdiction. The court, instead, should have classified the error as statutory in nature. By doing so, the court would have correctly aligned itself with the Supreme Court of the United States' modern, narrow version of jurisdiction. This would have allowed the Supreme Court of South Dakota the ability to analyze the filing error under plain error review, in which it should have ultimately characterized the error as harmless because the defendant was aware and advised of all of his rights, was not surprised or prejudiced, and effectively waived his objection to the error.


    Stemming from a gruesome attack where he sexually assaulted a female child, Gabriel Medicine Eagle was convicted of kidnapping, sexual contact with a child under sixteen, and multiple counts of rape. (1) Following the conviction, a separate jury found that Medicine Eagle was a habitual offender. (2) In order to avoid an elevated sentence, Medicine Eagle filed a motion to vacate, claiming that the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the habitual offender proceedings. (3) Specifically, Medicine Eagle argued that an incurable procedural error had occurred that deprived the court of subject matter jurisdiction over the original information. (4)

    Medicine Eagle's jurisdictional claim is not unique; historically these claims have often been raised post-conviction as a jurisdictional error needs to be addressed regardless of when it is initially asserted. (5) In the early part of the twenty-first century, the Supreme Court of the United States narrowed its definition of jurisdiction in order to reign in the volume of these claims. (6) In State v. Medicine Eagle, however, the Supreme Court of South Dakota failed to address jurisdiction under this modern interpretation. (7) Instead, the court erroneously held that the information filing error was jurisdictional in nature, stripping the court of its power to adjudicate the case. (8) The court is not only in direct conflict with modern precedent set forth by the Supreme Court of the United States, but it also fails to follow South Dakota's own precedent, along with persuasive rulings set forth by the federal circuit courts. (9) Yet the majority of justices--consisting of Circuit Judge Salter and Justice Konenkamp in the concurrence, along with Justice Zinter in the dissent--correctly recognized that information filing errors are questions of statutory overreaching that do not implicate jurisdiction. (10)

    This casenote argues that the court was misguided when it relied on overturned caselaw. (11) First, this casenote proceeds by recounting the facts and procedural history of Medicine Eagle. (12) Next, this casenote discusses the development of enhanced sentencing along with the modern shift in defining jurisdiction. (13) This casenote then addresses the legal history of jurisdiction. (14)

    Thereafter, this casenote argues why, when applying modern precedent, the Supreme Court of South Dakota should have found the information error to be non-jurisdictional. (15) Finally, this casenote concludes by arguing that once the court is freed from the jurisdictional question, the error in Medicine Eagle should be viewed as harmless for three reasons: (1) the Supreme Court of South Dakota was bound by its own precedent finding information errors to be harmless; (2) Medicine Eagle was informed and advised of his rights and the charges against him, and therefore was not deprived of due process or otherwise prejudiced; and (3) Medicine Eagle's habitual offender jury trial further safeguarded his constitutional rights. (16)



      On September 23, 2000, fifteen year-old M.E.H. was staying with her grandmother who lived near Winner, South Dakota. (17) At approximately 6:00 p.m, M.E.H. and her sixteen-year-old boyfriend, Patrick Red Bird, engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse. (18) Red Bird left shortly thereafter, and M.E.H walked to town. (19)

      At approximately 10:30 p.m., M.E.H. began walking back to her grandmother's house. (20) Believing she saw her mother's vehicle approaching, M.E.H. stopped walking. (21) Instead, it was twenty-three-year-old Gabriel Medicine Eagle and his passenger, Anthony Eagle Star. (22) The two men approached M.E.H. and asked if she would like a ride back to her grandmother's house. (23) M.E.H, who thought she recognized Eagle Star, accepted the offer so she could make her 11:00 p.m. curfew. (24)

      After M.E.H. got in the vehicle, Medicine Eagle dropped off Eagle Star. (25) Instead of driving M.E.H. home, however, Medicine Eagle drove to a gas station to buy beer. (26) After making a second stop, Medicine Eagle began driving west, taking M.E.H. in the opposite direction of her grandmother's house. (27) Medicine Eagle started driving fast and erratically while M.E.H. repeatedly asked him to take her home. (28) To this, Medicine Eagle replied, "you're going to be mad," and "you're going to be pissed." (29) Medicine Eagle then drove M.E.H. to a field outside of Winner. (30)

      When Medicine Eagle exited the vehicle, M.E.H. tried unsuccessfully to lock the doors. (31) M.E.H then jumped out of the vehicle and attempted to run away, but Medicine Eagle caught her and dragged her back to his van by her hair. (32) Once in the van, M.E.H. alleged that Medicine Eagle removed her clothing and threatened her with a gun. (33) M.E.H. further alleged that Medicine Eagle raped her, forced her to perform fellatio, and vaginally penetrated her with a baseball bat. (34) M.E.H. stated that after the assault, Medicine Eagle got dressed and forced M.E.H. to drink alcohol before returning her to her grandmother's house. (35)

      When M.E.H. arrived home, she informed her mother that she had been raped. (36) M.E.H.'s mother took M.E.H. to the hospital at approximately 2:00 a.m. on September 24, 2000. (37) The hospital staff completed a physical examination and rape kit on M.E.H. (38) The examination indicated that M.E.H. had physical injuries that were "consistent with 'a blunt type force.'" (39) The rape kit evidence, along with M.E.H.'s clothing, were collected for further DNA testing. (40) The hospital then discharged M.E.H., at which point law enforcement interviewed her. (41) Based on this interview, a grand jury indicted Medicine Eagle for rape. (42)

      The vaginal swab from the rape kit, a cutting from M.E.H's underwear, and a buccal swab obtained from Medicine Eagle were sent to Orchid Cellmark Lab ("Cellmark") in Texas for DNA testing. (43) From these test samples, Cellmark was able to identify a profile that was consistent with M.E.H.'s DNA, as well as a DNA profile of an unknown male, which did not match Medicine Eagle's profile. (44) As a result of these findings, the charges against Medicine Eagle were dismissed. (45)

      In 2008, however, law enforcement learned that M.E.H. had engaged in sexual intercourse with Red Bird on the same day as the alleged assault. (46) The South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation then made new inquiries into whether advanced DNA testing would produce new results. (47) Using the Combined DNA Index System ("CODIS"), a criminalist from the South Dakota Forensic Laboratory was able to match the unidentified male DNA profile previously found in 2001 to Red Bird. (48) As a result, the case against Medicine Eagle was reopened. (49) In 2008, Cellmark performed a new type of DNA testing on M.E.H.'s vaginal swab and underwear cutting, and compared it to both Red Bird and Medicine Eagle's DNA profiles. (50) The test determined that Medicine Eagle "could not be excluded as a contributor," unlike 99.97 percent of other unrelated males. (51)

      In December of 2009, Medicine Eagle was indicted by a new grand jury for "four counts of second-degree rape, three counts of third-degree rape, one count of sexual contact with a child under age 16, and four counts of kidnapping." (52) On July 14, 2010, the State filed a supplemental Part II Information, which charged Medicine Eagle as a habitual offender based on a prior felony conviction. (53) At an arraignment hearing on August 3, 2010, Medicine Eagle pled not guilty. (54)


      On October 18, 2011, after a seven-day jury trial, Medicine Eagle was found guilty of rape in the second and third degree, sexual contact with a child under sixteen, and kidnapping. (55) On October 24, 2011, the State amended its original Part II Information adding a second alleged prior felony conviction. (56) Per Medicine Eagle's request, the State later dismissed the amended Part II Information after discovering the second felony had occurred after the principle offense involving M.E.H. (57) When agreeing to the dismissal, the State explicitly stated that it "[did] not dismiss the original Part II and intend[ed] to proceed with [the] original Part II at the trial on such matter." (58) At the motions hearing on November 30, 2011, the trial court also noted that the "State withdrew 'the amended Part II Information, understanding that the original Part II Information [was] still going forward.'" (59) This was done without objection from Medicine Eagle or his counsel. (60) Medicine Eagle then had a separate jury trial for his alleged habitual offender...

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