Articles Posted in Criminal 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 The DOC rescinded the policy while the case was pending.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

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Conar Groppel was charged with first- and second-degree murder, manslaughter, first- and second-degree arson, first-degree criminal mischief, first-degree burglary, and evidence tampering. Groppel notified the superior court he intended to rely on the defense of diminished capacity, and pursuant to AS 12.47.070(a) the court was required to appoint at least two qualified psychiatrists or board-certified forensic psychologists to examine him and report upon his mental condition. Groppel also moved for a competency and culpability examination. This case presented questions regarding to whom these experts served, how they were to be chosen, and who had bear their costs. The Alaska Supreme Court answered that these were the court’s experts, that Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API) had to provide them if API did not employ such qualified experts, then the superior court had to appoint qualified experts and the Alaska Court System had bear their costs. View "Alaska v. Groppel" on Justia Law

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Stacey Graham pleaded guilty to second-degree murder after striking and killing two pedestrians while driving intoxicated. He was sued by the victims’ families. Graham appealed his sentence, arguing he could assert the privilege against self-incrimination in response to the families’ discovery requests based on: (1) his criminal sentence appeal; and (2) the possibility that he might file an application for post-conviction relief if his sentence was upheld. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded Graham could assert the privilege against self-incrimination in the civil proceeding based on the possibility that the decision on his pending sentence appeal might require a new sentencing proceeding where his compelled testimony in the civil proceeding could be used to his disadvantage. The Supreme Court declined to decide whether Graham was entitled to assert the privilege based on the possibility that he might eventually file an application for post-conviction relief because that issue was not ripe for review. View "Graham v. Durr" on Justia Law

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Kevin Patterson has been incarcerated since 2013, having been convicted after a bench trial of seven counts of possession of child pornography. In May 2015 Patterson filed a 121-page civil complaint in superior court in Juneau. The complaint named as defendants the governor and his predecessor, the Alaska Legislature, a state senator, the then-current and two former attorneys general, an assistant attorney general, an attorney with the Office of Public Advocacy, and the State of Alaska. The complaint alleged that these state officials and entities had “directly harmed . . . Patterson in numerous ways and [had] violated his Constitutional Rights over and over.” It sought damages for Patterson’s incarceration, violence and emotional distress he allegedly suffered while in prison, and the alleged denial of medical care. The Alaska Supreme Court affirmed dismissal of Patterson’s complaint, holding a civil suit for damages allegedly caused by a criminal conviction or sentence may not be maintained if judgment for the plaintiff would necessarily imply the invalidity of the conviction or sentence, unless the conviction or sentence has first been set aside in the course of the criminal proceedings. The Court also rejected Patterson’s claim that the superior court demonstrated an unfair bias against him. View "Patterson v. Walker" on Justia Law

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Alaska inmate David Simmons refused to provide a DNA sample for Alaska’s DNA identification registration system pursuant to a statutory requirement that persons convicted of certain crimes provide a DNA sample for the system. Refusal to submit a sample constituted a felony; for refusing the sample, he was charged with an infraction in a prison disciplinary hearing and found guilty. He appealed to the superior court, which affirmed. Simmons appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, arguing primarily that the crimes for which he was found guilty and incarcerated occurred before the effective date of the DNA identification registration system, and the DNA sample requirement either was not retrospective or, if it was, violated the ex post facto clauses of the Alaska and U.S. Constitutions. A secondary issue raised by Simmons' appeal pertained to counsel in disciplinary proceedings. Because the inmate was charged with a disciplinary infraction constituting a felony, under Alaska case law he had the right to counsel in his disciplinary hearing. The Department of Corrections refused to provide him counsel for his hearing. The superior court ruled that although the denial of counsel violated the inmate’s constitutional rights, the violation did not prejudice his ability to have a fair hearing. Rejecting Simmons' contentions with respect to the sample-felony, and finding no other reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s decisions. View "Simmons v. Alaska, Dept. of Corrections" on Justia Law

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Federal law mandated a prison disciplinary decision include a written statement of the evidence relied on and the reasons for the decision. In this case, the superior court affirmed a decision finding a prisoner “guilty” without any further explanation. The court reasoned that the prisoner was not prejudiced because the disciplinary hearing was recorded, and the prisoner was able to adequately explain his version of the evidence in his appeal. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the written disciplinary decision or the audio recording must ordinarily include a specific statement satisfying federal law: a mere finding of “guilty” is generally insufficient. The Court reversed the superior court’s decision affirming the decision of the Department of Corrections. View "Huber v. Alaska, Dept. of Corrections" on Justia Law

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John Doe I and John Doe II were two separate individuals required by the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to register as sex offenders in Alaska based on their out-of-state convictions. DPS argued Doe I’s Washington convictions and Doe II’s California conviction were “similar” to the Alaska offense of attempted sexual abuse of a minor under AS 11.31.100 and AS 11.41.436(a)(2), making both Doe I and Doe II subject to Alaska’s sex offender registration requirement. One superior court judge determined that Doe I was not required to register; another superior court judge determined that Doe II was required to register. The cases were consolidated on appeal, and the Alaska Supreme Court concluded that neither the Washington nor the California laws under which Doe I and Doe II were convicted were similar to the relevant Alaska law and therefore held that neither Doe I nor Doe II was required to register under Alaska law. View "Alaska, Dept. of Public Safety v. Doe I" on Justia Law