Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court

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An inmate representing himself sued the prison superintendent and chaplain for violating his religious rights by providing an inadequate halal diet, banning scented prayer oils, and not allowing him to have additional religious texts in his cell beyond the prison’s limit. He claimed these actions violated the Equal Protection Clause of both the Alaska Constitution and the federal Constitution, and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The inmate also sought reimbursement for scented oils that the prison had destroyed. The superior court granted the prison officials’ motion for summary judgment and dismissed all of the inmate’s claims. The Alaska Supreme Court reversed summary judgment on the inmate’s RLUIPA claim regarding the halal diet because the inmate did not receive adequate guidance on how to file affidavits in opposition to the summary judgment motion. The Court also reversed summary judgment on the RLUIPA claim regarding scented oils because the prison officials failed to satisfy their burden of proving that banning such oils was the least restrictive means to address their substantial interest in maintaining prison security and health. The Court affirmed dismissal of the inmate’s claims regarding the religious book limit because the issue was not yet ripe. And the Court vacated the award of attorney’s fees and costs. View "Leahy v. Conant" on Justia Law

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A man accidentally killed his roommate with a large knife while demonstrating martial arts moves. He pled guilty to criminally negligent homicide and stipulated to the applicability of a statutory aggravator that allowed sentencing above the upper range when a crime is “committed against . . . a member of the social unit made up of those living together in the same dwelling as the defendant.” On appeal of the sentence, defendant argued the aggravator was inappropriate in the context of his case. The court of appeals agreed, concluding that the aggravator is limited to cases in which the defendant’s conduct was specifically directed at the victim and had some source in the relationship between the victim and the defendant. Upon the State’s request for review, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded the aggravator applied to the facts of this case and the sentencing court was not clearly mistaken in giving it some weight. Therefore, the Court reversed the decision of the court of appeals. View "Alaska v. Tofelogo" on Justia Law

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In 2000 John Doe was convicted of aggravated sexual battery in Virginia. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment, with all time suspended, and a five-year term of probation. Under Virginia law Doe was required to register as a sex offender. Doe moved to Alaska in January 2003. On January 6, 2003, he registered as a sex offender. On April 11, 2003, the Department of Public Safety (DPS) wrote Doe indicating that he had to register annually in January of each year. He did so in 2004 and 2005. On February 4, 2005, DPS wrote Doe stating that he was required to register quarterly, for life. DPS noted that Doe’s Virginia conviction “has essentially the same elements as sexual assault [first] degree (AS 11.41.410), which is an aggravated offense that requires quarterly verification of your sex offender registration information.” This appeal presented two questions concerning the Alaska Sexual Offender Registration Act (ASORA): (1) whether ASORA’s registration requirements could be imposed on sex offenders who moved to Alaska after committing sex offenses elsewhere; and (2) whether ASORA violated due process by requiring all sex offenders to register without providing a procedure for them to establish that they do not represent a threat to the public. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded ASORA’s registration requirements could constitutionally be applied to out-of-state offenders. The Court also concluded ASORA violated due process, but its defect could be cured by providing a procedure for offenders to establish their non-dangerousness. View "John Doe v. Alaska, Department of Public Safety" on Justia Law

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Randell Jackson was charged with disorderly conduct, assault, and resisting arrest after a 2012 interaction with three police officers in Haines, Alaska. Amy Williams, an assistant district attorney, first prosecuted Jackson on these charges, but her efforts resulted in a mistrial. James Scott, the Juneau district attorney, oversaw the second round of proceedings against Jackson, which led to his conviction and sentencing. Jackson appealed his convictions in March 2016 to the superior court, which reversed his conviction for disorderly conduct but affirmed his assault and resisting arrest convictions. Jackson brought civil claims against the prosecutors who secured his convictions, alleging they committed various torts and violated his constitutional right to due process. The superior court dismissed his state and federal claims, concluding that the prosecutors enjoyed absolute immunity. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed the prosecutors were protected by absolute immunity from both the state and federal claims because they were acting in their official capacity as advocates for the State when they committed the acts that gave rise to the complaint. View "Jackson v. Borough of Haines, et al." on Justia Law

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At trial, petitioner Kenneth Wahl offered an acquaintance’s testimony given during grand jury proceedings, invoking the former-testimony exception to the hearsay rule. The superior court excluded the evidence, reasoning that the State did not have the same motive to develop the acquaintance’s testimony at grand jury. The court of appeals agreed. The Alaska Supreme Court, however, concluded the former-testimony exception did not require the opposing party to have had an identical motive to develop the testimony during the previous proceeding. Here, the prosecutor’s motives at grand jury and at trial were sufficiently similar to fit this exception. "But we affirm based on the superior court’s alternate rationale: The defendant did not establish that he had used reasonable means to secure the witness’s attendance, and thus the witness was not 'unavailable' — a requirement for the former-testimony exception to apply." View "Wahl v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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In 2011 Justin Nelson was indicted on three felony counts of sexual abuse of a minor. He was initially represented by two attorneys from the Dillingham office of the Alaska Public Defender Agency. On the day of sentencing, and represented by a third public defender, Nelson moved to withdraw his plea, arguing that he had not understood the terms of the agreement and had received ineffective assistance of counsel. The superior court declined to appoint a different lawyer to represent him on the motion to withdraw his plea and denied the motion. When the superior court held the sentencing hearing the following week, Nelson told the court he had been expecting his third attorney to visit him because he had “some things that [he] needed for [the attorney] to say”; he also complained that he had not seen any discovery, transcripts, or other documents related to his case. He said, “[T]he reason I took a deal is because of ineffective assistance, and the reason why I took it back is because of ineffective assistance.” The court explained, however, that it had gone back over the record of the plea agreement and remained unconvinced that there was any reason to allow the plea’s withdrawal. And the attorney reiterated his view that a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel should have been “litigated in post-conviction relief.” The court proceeded with sentencing over Nelson’s continued objections, finding that, while “the appointment of conflict counsel will often be the appropriate action in these circumstances, particularly because a different standard applies to a presentencing motion to withdraw a plea as opposed to a post-sentencing motion to withdraw a plea,” deference to the superior court’s discretion was appropriate given Nelson’s inability “to articulate or substantiate any specific assertions of how he had been incompetently represented” and the fact that sentencing “had already been delayed multiple times.” The Alaska Supreme Court held a public defender had a conflict of interest when the petitioner raises a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel against another public defender in the same office. The appellate court's judgment was reversed and the matter remanded to the trial court for appointment of conflict counsel and reconsideration of Nelson's motion for withdrawal of his plea. View "Nelson v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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Raymond Leahy was a prisoner at Goose Creek Correctional Center (Goose Creek). He was a practicing Muslim and identified himself as the Imam of the “Ummah of Incarcerated Alaskan Muslims.” He sued two prison superintendents, claiming that a mail policy instituted by the Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) violated his religious rights because it prohibited him from writing letters to fellow Muslims in two other prisons. He asked for damages and a declaratory judgment that the mail policy violated the Alaska Constitution and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The DOC rescinded the policy while the case was pending. The superior court granted summary judgment in favor of the superintendents, finding that the prisoner was not entitled to damages because the superintendents had not been personally involved in creating the policy and that his claims for non-monetary relief were mooted by the policy’s rescission. The prisoner appeals. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decision that the prisoner is not entitled to damages, though on different grounds: the superintendents were entitled to qualified immunity because the prisoner’s right to a religious exception from the mail policy was not “clearly established” under existing law. The Court also affirmed the superior court’s decision that the prisoner’s claim for declaratory relief was moot. View "Leahy v. Conant" on Justia Law

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Dana Thompson was convicted of 13 counts of first degree sexual abuse of a minor and 4 counts of second degree sexual abuse of a minor stemming from a 4-year sexual relationship with the daughter of a family friend. The first degree sexual abuse of a minor convictions were based on the alternative theories that Thompson either: (1) occupied a “position of authority” over the victim; or (2) resided in the same household as the victim and had authority over her. Thompson argued to the court of appeals that the leading case interpreting the phrase “position of authority,” was wrongly decided. He alternatively argued that the jury was improperly instructed about the meaning of the phrase “position of authority.” The court of appeals rejected both arguments. Thompson also argued to the court of appeals that the superior court erred by failing to merge many of his convictions. The court of appeals rejected his argument that the rules for merger in sexual abuse of a minor cases should be different than the rules for merger in sexual assault cases. The court reaffirmed that for both types of cases the unit of prosecution is the distinct act of sexual penetration of different bodily orifices. But the court of appeals found that the superior court had misapplied the rules for merger and held that Thompson’s convictions for digital penetration, penis-to-genital penetration, and penetration with an object during the same time period merged because the same orifice was involved and the evidence was ambiguous as to whether each act “accompanied” the other acts. The State petitioned for review of the court of appeals’ merger ruling, proffering a rule allowing separate convictions for penetration with different objects or body parts, regardless of the time period. Thompson cross-petitioned, arguing the court of appeals’ rulings on “position of authority” and concluding that the jury was properly instructed, were erroneous. He also argued the unit of prosecution for merger purposes should be the “sexual episode” and that many of his convictions should have therefore merged. The Alaska Supreme Court found no error in the appellate court's judgment and affirmed. View "Alaska v. Thompson" on Justia Law

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In three criminal cases consolidated for appeal, each defendant sought to introduce expert testimony by a polygraph examiner that the defendant was truthful when he made exculpatory statements relating to the charges against him during a polygraph examination conducted using the “comparison question technique” (CQT). In two of the cases, the superior courts found that testimony based on a CQT polygraph examination satisfied the requirements for scientific evidence under Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993) and Alaska v. Coon, 974 P.2d 386 (Alaska 1999). In the third case, the superior court reached the opposite conclusion and found the evidence inadmissible. The issue these cases presented for the Alaska Supreme Court's review centered on the appellate standard of review for rulings on the admissibility of scientific evidence and to determine the admissibility of CQT polygraph evidence. The Court concluded that appellate review of Daubert/Coon determinations should be conducted under a hybrid standard: the superior court’s preliminary factual determinations should be reviewed for clear error; based on those findings and the evidence available, whether a particular scientific theory or technique has been shown to be “scientifically valid” under Daubert and Coon is a question of law to which the Court applies its independent judgment; and where proposed scientific evidence passes muster under that standard, the superior court’s case-specific determinations and further evidentiary rulings are reviewed for abuse of discretion. Applying this standard here, the Supreme Court concluded that CQT polygraph evidence had not been shown to be sufficiently reliable to satisfy the Daubert/Coon standard. View "Alaska v. Sharpe" on Justia Law

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Christopher Hess was convicted by jury of second and third degree assault. He appealed, arguing that the superior court committed plain error by not addressing improper statements in the prosecutor’s closing arguments. The court of appeals affirmed Hess’s convictions and held that, although some of the prosecutor’s statements were improper, they did not undermine the trial’s fundamental fairness. The Alaska Supreme Court determined the comments at issue here "affected important rights that could affect the fundamental fairness of the proceeding. The prosecutor suggested that the jury should consider his personal opinion of defense attorneys and Hess’s defense strategy. The prosecutor’s attack on the defense strategy and defense counsel was inappropriate, the comments were of no probative value, and they created a high potential for unfair prejudice." Because these statements were plain error, the Supreme Court reversed Hess' convictions and remanded for a new trial. View "Hess v. Alaska" on Justia Law