Justia Criminal Law Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Alaska Supreme Court
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A member of the Metlakatla Indian Community was convicted of several commercial fishing violations in State waters and fined $20,000. He appealed his conviction and sentence to the court of appeals, which asked the Alaska Supreme Court to take jurisdiction of the appeal because of the importance of the primary issue involved: whether the defendant’s aboriginal and treaty-based fishing rights exempted him from State commercial fishing regulations. The defendant also challenged several evidentiary rulings and the fairness of his sentence. Because the Supreme Court held the State had authority to regulate fishing in State waters in the interests of conservation regardless of the defendant’s claimed fishing rights, and because the Court concluded the trial court did not abuse its discretion in its procedural rulings, the Supreme Court affirmed the conviction. The Court also affirmed the sentence as not clearly mistaken, except for one detail on which the parties agreed: the district court was mistaken to include a probationary term in the sentence. The case was remanded for modification of the judgments to correct that mistake. View "Scudero Jr. v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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A minor convicted of driving under the influence (DUI) argued that the statute that excluded misdemeanor traffic violations from juvenile court jurisdiction violated her right to equal protection under the Alaska Constitution. She argued that the mandatory jail sentence for first DUI offenders was unfairly different than the dispositions for other misdemeanors in the juvenile code. And she argued that it was unfair for felony DUI offenses to be charged in juvenile court when misdemeanor offenses were not. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded that because driving was an adult activity, the legislature could reasonably decide to treat misdemeanor traffic violations consistently to promote public safety while also reasonably choosing to protect juvenile offenders from the harsh collateral consequences of a felony conviction. The Court, therefore, concluded the statute was constitutional and affirmed the judgment of the district court. View "Watson v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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In 1997, Kelley Maves was convicted of two sexual assaults in Colorado. He moved to Alaska in 2015, where the Department of Public Safety required him to register for life as a sex offender under the Alaska Sex Offenders Registration Act (ASORA). Maves appealed the Department’s decision to the superior court, arguing that one of the two convictions could not be used as the basis for a lifetime registration requirement because it had been set aside; with one conviction he would be required to register for only 15 years. His argument on appeal included a challenge to a 1995 departmental regulation that defined “conviction” as including those that had been set aside. The superior court affirmed the Department’s decision requiring the Maves to register for life. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the 1994 version of ASORA was not plainly intended to apply to offenders whose convictions have been set aside, and that the 1995 regulation extending the Act’s reach to those convictions was not necessary to carry out the Act’s purposes. The Court therefore reversed the superior court’s decision upholding the requirement that Maves register under ASORA for life. View "Maves v. Department of Public Safety" on Justia Law

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The Alaska Department of Corrections investigated its employee David Wilson for potentially criminal misconduct. It ordered him to answer questions from investigators but assured him that his answers and any evidence derived from those answers could not be used against him criminally. Wilson was terminated for refusing to answer and claimed the State violated his constitutional privilege against self­ incrimination by failing to tell his lawyer that his answers to the investigator could not be used against him in a criminal proceeding. After review of his appeal, the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that by terminating Wilson for refusing to answer those questions, the State of Alaska did not violate his privilege against self-incrimination, under either the U.S. Constitution or the Alaska Constitution. The State did notify Wilson that his answers could not be used against him criminally, and Wilson not only confirmed at the time that he understood this notification, but also in the subsequent court proceedings introduced no evidence to the contrary. View "Wilson v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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Loren Larson, Jr. was convicted in 1998 of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of first-degree burglary, and he was sentenced to two consecutive 99-year terms for the murder counts and a 10-year concurrent term for the burglary count; the court of appeals affirmed Larson’s conviction in 2000. In 2003, the court of appeals affirmed the superior court’s subsequent dismissal of Larson’s post-conviction relief claim. Larson maintained his innocence and has unsuccessfully challenged the convictions in numerous other proceedings. Larson claimed he wanted to apply for clemency from the Alaska Governor on grounds he was innocent and wrongly convicted, But he did not want to execute two required information release forms that were part of the clemency application. Larson was advised by the Board of Parole that under the current administrative framework an incomplete application would be returned to him and not forwarded to the governor. Larson then sued the Board, arguing that its refusal to forward his application without the release forms violated his due process right to submit a clemency application. He further argued that enforcing the information release requirement would violate the unconstitutional conditions doctrine, which in some contexts barred the government from conditioning a benefit on the waiver of a constitutional right. The superior court granted summary judgment to the Board, rejecting the applicant’s constitutional arguments. Because the Board did not violate the applicant’s constitutional rights, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s dismissal of the lawsuit. View "Larson Jr. v. Alaska, Department of Corrections, Board of Parole" on Justia Law

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Petitioners were sex offenders who received prison sentences with some time suspended and probation imposed pursuant to a statute that mandated suspended imprisonment and probation as part of their initial sentences. The statute provided that the probationary term could not be suspended or reduced. After being released from prison, repeatedly violating the conditions of probation, and having all of their formerly suspended time reinstated, petitioners moved for discharge from probation. Their motions were denied because the statute mandating probation required the petitioners to serve the entire probationary term, even if they no longer had suspended time remaining as an incentive to comply with probation. While their cases were pending before the court of appeals, the statute was repealed. The court of appeals held the statute’s repeal was not retroactive, and it affirmed the denial of their motions. The Alaska Supreme Court granted review of this matter, and concluded that based on the statute’s text and legislative history, courts had no discretion to reduce a sex offender’s probation below statutory minimums, therefore affirming the court of appeals' judgment. View "Chinuhuk et al. v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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Falealo Pulusila was charged with fourth-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance (methamphetamine), misconduct involving weapons in the fifth degree, failure to carry proof of auto insurance, and failure to carry vehicle liability insurance. He entered into a plea agreement in July 2013, pursuant to which he pleaded guilty to the fourth-degree misconduct charge and the State dismissed the other charges; the court sentenced him to 48 months’ imprisonment with 42 months suspended and three years’ probation. In July 2014 Pulusila’s probation officer petitioned to revoke his probation for five alleged violations. The court found that he violated his probation and ordered him to serve 25 days of his suspended jail time. Over the next two years the probation officer petitioned the court four more times to revoke Pulusila’s probation, and the court ordered him to serve various amounts of his suspended jail time in connection with each. This appeal involved the probation officer’s fifth petition to revoke probation. The probation officer alleged that Pulusila was in possession of certain prohibited items after he was found in a truck with those items. Pulusila argued that the State had to show that he knew the items were in the borrowed truck for there to be a violation. The superior court disagreed and imposed all of the remaining time in the probationer’s suspended sentence. The court of appeals reversed, holding that there was a mens rea requirement for possession as a condition of probation. The State petitioned for hearing, arguing that the court of appeals significantly modified the Alaska Supreme Court's decision in Trumbly v. State, which outlined the proper analytical framework for probation revocation hearings; the State also argued that the court of appeals erred in holding that the probation condition included a mens rea requirement. After review, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its Trumbly holding and Trumbly's two-stage probation revocation hearing process. Further, the Court held that the appropriate mens rea requirement for possession of items prohibited by a condition of probation was a negligence standard, not an actual knowledge standard: the State must prove the probationer knew or should have known he was in possession of items prohibited by a condition of probation. The Court thus reversed the court of appeals’ decision and remanded to the superior court to determine whether Pulusila knew or should have known that he was in possession of the prohibited items. View "Alaska v. Pulusila" on Justia Law

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Several Alaska Department of Corrections inmates challenged the DOC's policy to charge for local telephone calls, arguing the rates they and call recipients had to pay for calls violated their constitutional right to rehabilitation, their statutory right to reasonable telephone access, and DOC’s contractual obligations under a prior settlement and consent decree. In addition, one of the prisoners challenged DOC officers’ decision to deny him access to a computer programming book he ordered from outside the prison. He contended that DOC placed a content-specific restriction on the educational materials and publications prisoners were allowed, violating the Alaska Constitution’s free speech provisions as well as prisoners’ right to reformation. Each of these challenges reached the Alaska Supreme Court after inmates exhausted the administrative process from prison. Inmates then appealed to the superior court, which denied relief. The Alaska Supreme Court determined the superior court record did not provide enough evidence for it to meaningfully determine the reasonableness of the rates charged inmates for local telephone calls; therefore the Court reversed denial of relief and remanded for further fact-finding by the trial court. The Court concluded that the facility's restrictions on programming-related books were rationally related to a legitimate interest, and because they did not infringe on the right to rehabilitation, it affirmed denial of a prisoner's motion to enforce his claimed right to a particular text about computer programming. View "Antenor v. Alaska, Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Jason Barnebey was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. At the police station he was administered a breath test by a DataMaster testing instrument, which showed a result of .081 percent alcohol, above the .08 legal limit. Barnebey elected to obtain an independent chemical test, which showed a result of .073. Following an administrative hearing, a hearing officer relied on the DataMaster breath-test result to sustain the Department of Motor Vehicles’s revocation of the Barnebey's license pursuant to AS 28.15.165(c). Barnebey appealed, arguing, as he had at the administrative hearing, that it was error not to consider the DataMaster’s inherent margin of error in determining whether his test result was over the legal limit. The superior court affirmed the hearing officer’s decision and awarded attorney’s fees to the State; Barnebey appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court. After review, the Supreme Court determined the hearing officer properly interpreted the governing law and did not violate due process in her consideration of the DataMaster’s margin of error. The Court affirmed the decision revoking the man’s license. However, the Court concluded it was error for the superior court to award attorney’s fees to the State without considering whether the man was entitled to protection as a constitutional litigant under AS 09.60.010(c)(2). The fee award was therefore vacated, and the matter remanded for further consideration of only that issue. View "Barnebey v. Alaska Department of Administration, Division of Motor Vehicles" on Justia Law

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Psychiatrists employed by the Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) diagnosed inmate Adam Israel with paranoid schizophrenia. The inmate disputed his diagnosis, contending that his claimed rare genetic ability to see the electro-magnetic radiation of poltergeists was misunderstood as a delusion. The inmate brought a medical malpractice action against the psychiatrists and DOC seeking rescission of his diagnosis and damages. DOC filed a motion for summary judgment supported by an affidavit from DOC’s chief medical officer. The affidavit confirmed the inmate’s diagnosis and asserted that the inmate received treatment consistent with his diagnosis. After notifying the inmate that he needed expert testimony to oppose the motion for summary judgment, the superior court granted DOC’s summary judgment motion because the inmate failed to provide expert testimony to rebut DOC’s evidence. Israel appealed, arguing that DOC’s medical director was not qualified to testify about the standard of care under AS 09.20.185. The Alaska Supreme Court determined Israel failed to create a genuine issue of material fact about the correctness of his diagnosis. Therefore, the Court affirmed the superior court’s grant of summary judgment. The Supreme Court also rejected Israel's other arguments raised on appeal. View "Israel v. Alaska, Department of Corrections" on Justia Law