Rhode Island tribe, state file lawsuits in tobacco dispute

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The state and the Narragansett Indian Tribe have taken their dispute over the tribe's tax-free tobacco store to court, following a state police raid that included seven arrests of tribal members.

The tribe sued Tuesday in federal court seeking a declaration that as a sovereign nation it has the right to sell tobacco tax-free. The state attorney general is asking the Washington County Superior Court to declare that the tribe acted illegally.

Each side also is seeking a temporary restraining order against the other.

The lawsuits came one day after seven members of the tribe, including tribal leader Matthew Thomas, were arrested in a tumultuous raid at the newly opened tobacco shop. The store's inventory also was seized.

The state claims that the tribe is subject to all state laws under the terms of a 1978 agreement that granted the Narragansetts 1,800 acres of land.

John Killoy Jr., an attorney representing the Narragansetts, said the agreement gives the state authority over the tribe's lands, not the tribe's activities. He also said Rhode Island, which taxes tobacco distributors, is not entitled to tax the Narragansetts.

"Congress never authorized taxation of the Narragansett Indian Tribe by the state," he said.

Gov. Don Carcieri said Tuesday he planned an independent investigation into the raid and conduct of state police. He accused the Narragansetts of staging the melee and said it looked like the tribe's resistance was orchestrated.

Videotape showed tribe members resisting the state police as they tried to enter the store. Several of those resisting were wrestled to the ground and handcuffed.

Carcieri said he has offered the tribe a compromise on the tobacco sale question, as other states have done, but the Narragansetts refused unless he dropped his opposition to a casino. Thomas said Tuesday that he asked only that the governor allow the issue to go to a voter referendum.