Articles Posted in Constitutional 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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A public utility filed a condemnation action seeking the land use rights necessary to construct a natural gas storage facility in an underground formation of porous rock. The utility held some rights already by assignment from an oil and gas lessee. The superior court held that because of the oil and gas lease, the utility owned the rights to whatever producible gas remained in the underground formation and did not have to compensate the landowner for its use of the gas to help pressurize the storage facility. The court held a bench trial to determine the value of the storage space. The landowner appealed the resulting compensation award, arguing it retained ownership of the producible gas in place because the oil and gas lease authorized only production, not storage. It also argued it had the right to compensation for gas that was discovered after the date of taking. The landowner also challenged several findings related to the court’s valuation of the storage rights: that the proper basis of valuation was the storage facility’s maximum physical capacity rather than the capacity allowed by its permits; that the valuation should not have included buffer area at the same rate as area used for storage; and that an expert’s valuation methodology, which the superior court accepted, was flawed. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not err in ruling that the landowner’s only rights in the gas were reversionary rights that were unaffected by the utility’s non-consumptive use of the gas during the pendency of the lease. Furthermore, the Court concluded the trial court did not clearly err with regard to findings about valuation. View "Kenai Landing, Inc. v Cook Inlet Natural Gas Storage, et al." 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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The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (DOT or the State) condemned a strip of property along the Parks Highway. DOT filed a declaration of taking, allowing it to take title immediately, and deposited approximately $15,000 in court as estimated compensation for the taking. The landowner challenged DOT’s estimate and was eventually awarded approximately $24,000, as well as attorney’s fees and costs. Pursuant to AS 09.55.440, the superior court awarded prejudgment interest to the landowner on the difference between the amount of DOT’s initial deposit and the amount the property was ultimately determined to be worth. The landowner appealed, arguing that the prejudgment interest should have been calculated on the difference between the deposit and his entire judgment, including significant amounts for attorney’s fees and appraisal costs. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the landowner’s argument was not supported by the statutory language, legislative history, or policy. Furthermore, the Court rejected the landowner’s arguments that the superior court applied the wrong postjudgment interest rate and abused its discretion by denying discovery of the State’s attorneys’ billing records. The trial court failed to state its reasons for excluding attorney time from its attorney's fees award, and therefore vacated that award and remanded for reconsideration only of the fees award. View "Keeton v. Alaska, Department of Transportation and Public Facilities" on Justia Law

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A husband and wife appealed denials of their Permanent Fund Dividends (PFDs) for 2014 and 2015. The husband’s 2014 PFD application was denied because he had been absent from the state for more than five years, creating a presumption of nonresidence that he was unable to rebut. The wife’s application was denied because her PFD eligibility as an accompanying military spouse depended on her husband’s. After the denials were affirmed by an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), the couple appealed to the superior court. While this appeal was pending they both applied for 2015 PFDs and were again denied. The husband’s 2015 application was denied because his residency for PFD purposes was severed in the 2014 PFD proceedings and he had not reestablished it. The wife’s application was again denied because of her accompanying-spouse status. They appealed the 2015 denials too; the superior court consolidated the 2014 and 2015 cases and affirmed both denials. The Alaska Supreme Court determined neither spouse met the residency requirements to qualify for either a 2014 or a 2015 PFD under the plain language of the applicable statute. The Court therefore affirmed the ALJs’ decisions. View "Jones v. Alaska, Department of Revenue" 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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The district court found that a woman, "Linda M.," charged with several misdemeanors was incompetent to stand trial and committed her to a state hospital. The hospital later brought petitions in the superior court for civil commitment and involuntary medication. Linda moved to dismiss or stay the proceedings, contending that the superior court was an improper forum because of the criminal case pending in the district court. The superior court denied the motion, asserted its jurisdiction to hear the case, and granted the hospital’s petition for authority to administer medication. Linda appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court held the superior court properly asserted its jurisdiction over the civil commitment and involuntary medication petitions and that the superior court did not err in finding that involuntary medication was in Linda's best interests. View "In Re Hospitalization of Linda M." on Justia Law

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Connor J. was living at a shelter for homeless youth, when his psychiatric condition allegedly began to deteriorate. A social worker filed a petition in superior court seeking authority to hospitalize Connor for evaluation. The petition noted Connor had a history of suicidal thoughts; that he had been diagnosed at various times with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and oppositional defiant disorder; and that he had been treated for mental illness in the past at a hospital and several counseling centers. Connor was transported to Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API) for an evaluation. A few days later API filed a petition for 30-day commitment and a proceedings were initiated that lead to his commitment. The superior court issued a 30-day involuntary commitment order after finding that Connor was "gravely disabled" and there were no less restrictive alternatives to hospitalization. The respondent appealed, arguing that it was plain error to find he waived his statutory right to be present at the commitment hearing, that it was clear error to find there were no less restrictive alternatives, and that the commitment order should be amended to omit a finding that he posed a danger to others, a finding the superior court meant to reject. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded it was not plain error to find that the respondent waived his presence at the hearing. We further conclude that it was not clear error to find that there were no less restrictive alternatives to a 30-day hospital commitment. However, because there was no dispute that the “danger to others” finding should not have been included in the commitment order, the case was remanded for issuance of a corrected order. View "In Re Hospitalization of Connor J." on Justia Law

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A 2014 statute and 2013 regulation re-defined which abortions qualified as “medically necessary” for the purposes of Medicaid funding. The statute defined medically necessary abortions as those that “must be performed to avoid a threat of serious risk to the life or physical health of a woman from continuation of the woman’s pregnancy” as a result of a number of listed medical conditions; the regulation was similarly restrictive. Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest challenged both the statute and regulation as unconstitutional, and the superior court held that both measures violated the equal protection clause of the Alaska Constitution. The court reasoned that these measures imposed a “high-risk, high- hazard” standard on abortion funding unique among Medicaid services, and held that our 2001 decision striking down an earlier abortion funding restriction on equal protection grounds compelled the same result. The State appealed, arguing that the statute and regulation should be interpreted more leniently and therefore do not violate the Alaska Constitution’s equal protection clause. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decision: the statute’s and the regulation’s facially different treatment of pregnant women based upon their exercise of reproductive choice required the Court to apply strict scrutiny, and the proposed justifications for the funding restrictions "did not withstand such exacting examination." View "Alaska v. Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest" on Justia Law