Articles Posted in Constitutional Law

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Abigail Caudle was a 26-year-old apprentice electrician when she was electrocuted on the job while working for Raven Electric, Inc. Her mother sought workers’ compensation death benefits or other damages related to her daughter’s death. Acting on the advice of attorneys but representing herself, she brought a claim before the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board, arguing in part that the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act was unconstitutional because it inadequately compensated for her daughter’s life, particularly given the circumstances of her daughter’s death, and because it failed to consider her future dependency on her daughter. The Board denied her claim, and the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission affirmed the Board’s decision. The Commission also ordered the mother to pay the employer’s attorney’s fees and costs. The Alaska Supreme Court held that the mother’s constitutional rights are not violated by the Act. However, the Court reversed the Commission’s award of attorney’s fees. View "Burke v. Raven Electric, Inc." on Justia Law

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Police entered the defendant Antonio Jordan’s property and found 15 marijuana plants, which when stripped and dried yielded over a pound and a half of marijuana. At trial, the court excluded the defendant’s testimony that he believed he possessed less than four ounces of marijuana (the statutory limit) and failed to instruct the jury that it had to find a culpable mental state with regard to the marijuana’s weight. The jury convicted the defendant of possessing at least four ounces, a class C felony. On appeal, the court of appeals held that the trial court erred both by barring the defendant’s testimony about his subjective belief and by omitting a mental state element from the jury instructions. But finding these errors harmless, the court affirmed the defendant’s conviction. Defendant argued on appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court (for the first time) that the alleged errors at trial were structural errors. The Supreme Court agreed conditionally and in part, holding that omitting from jury instructions a contested element of an offense was structural error. Furthermore, the Court held that the restriction on the defendant’s testimony in this case was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, though the Court did not reach the question whether it was structural error. “Our decision of these issues, however, assumes that the defendant’s possession of marijuana in a greenhouse on his residential property should be afforded the same constitutional protections given to his possession of marijuana in the home. Whether this is a legitimate assumption was not decided in either the superior court or the court of appeals.” The Court reversed the court of appeals and remanded to the superior court to consider in the first instance whether the constitutional protections applied. View "Jordan v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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The Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) found an inmate guilty of making a false statement to a staff member about work he was supposed to do. The inmate was ordered to pay in restitution half the amount of his wages for that work. The inmate appealed, arguing that DOC violated his due process rights by refusing to allow him to call witnesses at his disciplinary hearing. The Alaska Supreme Court recognized prisoners have a constitutional right to call witnesses at a disciplinary hearing and that the hearing officer’s failure to call the inmate's requested witnesses was prejudicial. The disciplinary decision was reversed and the matter remanded for a new hearing. View "Walker v. Alaska Dept. of Corrections" on Justia Law

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The Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) found an inmate guilty of making a false statement to a staff member about work he was supposed to do. The inmate was ordered to pay in restitution half the amount of his wages for that work. The inmate appealed, arguing that DOC violated his due process rights by refusing to allow him to call witnesses at his disciplinary hearing. The Alaska Supreme Court recognized prisoners have a constitutional right to call witnesses at a disciplinary hearing and that the hearing officer’s failure to call the inmate's requested witnesses was prejudicial. The disciplinary decision was reversed and the matter remanded for a new hearing. View "Walker v. Alaska Dept. of Corrections" on Justia Law

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The Alaska court of appeals recently read Roman v. Alaska, 570 P.2d 1235(1977) as requiring that a sentencing court affirmatively review all probation conditions proposed in the presentence report, even if the defendant has not objected to those conditions. It applied that requirement to Dean Ranstead’s sentence appeal and remanded to the superior court. The State petitioned for hearing. The Alaska Supreme Court agreed with the court of appeals that a sentencing court bears responsibility for ensuring that probation conditions satisfy the requirements of Roman and are not otherwise illegal. But the Court found a sentencing court was not required to make particularized findings to support the imposition of a proposed probation condition to which the defendant had not objected. Therefore, the Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals’ decision to the extent it vacated probation conditions to which Ranstead did not object. View "Alaska v. Ranstead" on Justia Law

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Matthew Pease-Madore filed nearly a dozen administrative appeals of prison disciplinary proceedings in the superior court; he filed three appeals from the superior court’s decisions with the Alaska Supreme Court. The first of the three appeals related to a November 17, 2014 incident in which he reportedly told an officer, “I’m not going to be in jail forever and it is going to be very interesting when I meet certain people on the streets.” From this, Pease-Madore was charged with making “threats to another of future bodily harm” in violation of 22 Alaska Administrative Code (AAC) 05.400(d)(6) (2004). The United States Supreme Court held that federal procedural due process requires “a ‘written statement by the factfinders as to the evidence relied on and reasons’ for the disciplinary action.” The Alaska Supreme Court held that due process under the Alaska Constitution required a “verbatim record of the [disciplinary] proceedings.” The superior court concluded that the incident reports and the audio recordings of the three disciplinary hearings satisfied due process, and denied the three appeals. The prisoner argued on appeal to the Alaska Court that the verbatim record requirement was in addition to and not in place of the federal written statement requirement. He also argued the written disciplinary decisions were inadequate and could not incorporate the incident reports or be supplemented by the verbatim records and that no showing of prejudice would be required if the federal due process requirement was not met. Finding no reversible error in the superior court’s decision, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed. View "Pease-Madore v. Alaska Dept. of Corrections" on Justia Law

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In early 2010 Alvin Wassillie was serving out the remainder of a felony sentence at the Parkview Center halfway house in Anchorage. On February 19 he left Parkview on a pass to look for a job. Around the time of his return that afternoon a staff member saw someone toss a white bag through an open window into an upstairs room. Other staff members searched the room and found a white bag with a bottle of vodka in it. Parkview’s security manager identified Wassillie as the person who threw the bag (and presumably the vodka) into the building. Bringing alcohol into the facility was a violation of its rules, so Wassillie was asked to wait in the lobby while a report was made and the Department of Corrections (DOC) was contacted to take Wassillie back to jail. After waiting several hours in the lobby, Wassillie walked out of the facility. A jury found Wassillie guilty of escaping from a halfway house, and the court of appeals affirmed his conviction. The Alaska Supreme Court granted a petition for hearing on the issue of whether the conviction should be overturned because of the invalidity of the grand jury’s indictment. Wassillie argued that the indictment was based on inadmissible hearsay evidence — an incident report prepared by a staff member at the halfway house, relaying another resident’s description of the defendant’s conduct and introduced to the grand jury through the testimony of an uninvolved supervisor. The State countered that the incident report fell under the business records exception to the hearsay rule, and that even if it was inadmissible hearsay the conviction should not be reversed because any error in the grand jury proceeding was later made harmless by the error-free trial. The Supreme Court held that the incident report did not fall under the business records exception to the hearsay rule and should have been excluded. Because the evidence was otherwise insufficient to support the grand jury’s decision to indict, the indictment was invalid and the conviction had to be reversed. View "Wassillie v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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Michael Rae was a prisoner in the custody of Alaska’s Department of Corrections (DOC). In January 2015, he filed a complaint (labeled a “petition”) alleging that DOC lacked the constitutional authority to hold him. In an attached motion for expedited consideration he asserted that he had been “subjected to numerous forms of cruel and unusual punishments” including solitary confinement and impediments to his ability to conduct legal research. In June 2015, the superior court sua sponte dismissed the complaint with prejudice because Rae failed to “advance any cognizable or discernable claim.” Rae filed both a motion for reconsideration and a notice of his intent to seek a default, following up with a 75-page application for a default judgment. The superior court denied reconsideration, concluding that “Rae’s main point of contention is that [DOC] has no legal authority to hold him or exist at all” and that the “argument is without merit and the relief sought is not available to Rae.” The Alaska Supreme Court agreed the complaint failed to state a cognizable claim, and affirmed the dismissal. View "Rae v. Alaska Dept. of Corrections" on Justia Law

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In May 2014, the Alaska Department of Corrections found inmate Sababu Hodari guilty of a disciplinary infraction. Hodari appealed the Department’s decision to the superior court, arguing that the Department violated his right to due process by failing to follow prescribed procedure in the disciplinary hearing. While the appeal was pending the Department reversed its decision and removed the disciplinary records from Hodari’s file. The superior court then found that Hodari had effectively prevailed on his appeal, and it allowed him to recover costs and fees from the Department. Hodari moved for an award of $4,800 in attorney’s and paralegal fees. The court awarded Hodari fees and costs but did not specify the amount of the award in its order, so the Department moved for clarification of the fee-award order. In its clarification order the court stated that because Hodari had not shown that the paralegal fees were for legal work “ordinarily performed by an attorney,” he was only entitled to $1,800 in attorney’s fees. Hodari appealed, arguing that the superior court abused its discretion in refusing to award him paralegal fees. The Alaska Supreme Court disagreed, and therefore affirmed the superior court’s fee award. View "Hodari v. Alaska Dept. of Corrections" on Justia Law

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In November 1999, Alaska filed a felony information charging Sean Wright with sexually abusing two young girls. Wright was not arrested or indicted on these charges until almost five years later. He moved to dismiss the charges, claiming, among other reasons, that his right to a speedy trial had been violated. The superior court denied this motion. On appeal, the court of appeals ordered a reassessment of Wright’s claim. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded speedy trial time begins to run from the filing of an information, and that that the superior court did not err in attributing primary responsibility for the delay to Wright. View "Alaska v. Wright" on Justia Law