Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law
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Seth Lookhart, a dentist, was convicted of numerous crimes related to a fraudulent scheme that endangered his patients' health and safety. The scheme involved unnecessary sedation of patients to fraudulently bill Alaska’s Medicaid program, overcharging it by more than $1.6 million. Lookhart also stole $412,500 from a business partner. His reckless sedation practices nearly resulted in the loss of two patients' lives. He was arrested in April 2017 and convicted on 46 charges in January 2020, leading to a sentence of 20 years in prison with eight years suspended.Following Lookhart's convictions, the Division of Corporations, Business and Professional Licensing sought to revoke his dental license. Lookhart agreed to the facts of the accusation but argued that revocation was not an appropriate sanction. The administrative law judge (ALJ) disagreed, stating that Lookhart's misconduct was more severe than any prior case and that revocation was the clear and obvious sanction. The Board of Dental Examiners adopted the ALJ's decision.Lookhart appealed to the superior court, arguing that the Board's decision was inconsistent with its prior decisions. The court disagreed, stating that the Board had wide discretion to determine appropriate sanctions and that no prior case was comparable to Lookhart's. The court affirmed the Board's decision. Lookhart then appealed to the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska.The Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's decision. It held that the Board of Dental Examiners did not abuse its discretion by revoking Lookhart's license. The court found that none of the Board's prior licensing cases involved misconduct of the scope and severity in this case, so there was no applicable precedent to limit the Board's exercise of its discretion. View "Lookhart v. State of Alaska, Board of Dental Examiners" on Justia Law

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The case involves a man, Dominic N., who was involuntarily committed for mental health treatment. Dominic N. has a history of being charged with sexual abuse of a minor and has been deemed incompetent to stand trial multiple times. He has been diagnosed with numerous mental health and behavioral conditions, including major depressive disorder, selective mutism, and borderline intellectual functioning. In 2021, he was again charged with sexual abuse of a minor and found mentally incompetent to stand trial. While at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API) for competency restoration, he was diagnosed with additional disorders, including antisocial personality disorder.The Superior Court of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, held a competency hearing and found Dominic mentally incompetent. The court ordered his commitment to API for further evaluation and restoration. The State petitioned for an order authorizing Dominic’s evaluation to determine whether he was mentally ill and likely to cause harm to others. The court granted the petition, and API staff filed a petition for 30-day civil commitment. After a hearing, the court found that Dominic was mentally ill and likely to cause harm to others, and ordered his commitment to API for 30 days.Dominic appealed to the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska, arguing that the State failed to prove that he was mentally ill as defined by statute and that his diagnoses were the type of intellectual and developmental disabilities excluded from the definition. The Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s order, concluding that there was clear and convincing evidence that Dominic suffered from mental illness that is more than his excluded disabilities. The court found that Dominic’s impulse control disorder and pedophilic disorder were distinct from his intellectual and developmental disabilities, satisfying the statutory definition of mental illness. View "In re Hospitalization of Dominic N." on Justia Law

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Brennan Grubb was convicted of sexually abusing a minor, which resulted in severe emotional trauma for the young boy. The boy's mother, a teacher, resigned from her job to care for her son. Grubb pleaded guilty to the charges and was ordered by the superior court to pay restitution, including compensation for the mother's future lost wages and benefits. Grubb appealed the restitution order, arguing that his criminal conduct was not the proximate cause of the mother's future lost wages and benefits. The court of appeals agreed with Grubb and vacated the restitution order.The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska reversed the decision of the court of appeals. The court held that the mother's resignation from her teaching position was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of Grubb's criminal conduct. The court remanded the case to the court of appeals for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. The court emphasized that the legislature has steadily expanded the rights of crime victims to obtain restitution and that the statutory right to restitution must factor into the proximate cause analysis. The court also noted that the statutory definition of "victim" necessarily affects the proximate cause analysis. The court concluded that it was error to hold as a matter of law that Grubb's conduct could not be the proximate cause of the mother's future lost wages and benefits. View "State v. Grubb" on Justia Law

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The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska considered whether law enforcement officers violated the Alaska Constitution by conducting warrantless aerial surveillance of a private property with high-powered optics to investigate a tip about marijuana cultivation. The property was located in an isolated area near Fairbanks and was surrounded by trees that obstructed ground-level view. The officers' aerial surveillance aided by a high-powered zoom lens led to a search warrant, which uncovered marijuana plants, methamphetamine, scales, plastic bags for packaging, a loaded AK-47 rifle, and a large amount of cash. The defendant, McKelvey, was subsequently charged with criminal offenses.The Superior Court denied McKelvey's motion to suppress the evidence obtained from the aerial surveillance, holding that although McKelvey had a subjective expectation of privacy, this expectation was objectively unreasonable given the visibility of his property from the air. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the ruling, holding that under the Alaska Constitution, a warrant was required for law enforcement to use high-powered optics for aerial surveillance of a private property.The Supreme Court of Alaska affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals. It held that conducting aerial surveillance of a person's property using high-powered optics constitutes a search that requires a warrant under the Alaska Constitution. The court reasoned that such surveillance has the potential to reveal intimate details of a person's private life and could discourage Alaskans from using their private outdoor spaces. The court concluded that the chilling effect of such surveillance outweighed the utility of the conduct as a law enforcement technique. View "State of Alaska v. Mckelvey" on Justia Law

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In this case from the Supreme Court of the State of Alaska, the court examined a claim brought by an inmate, Jeffrey Hout. Hout, who was convicted in 2010 of kidnapping and murder, accused Governor Michael Dunleavy of failing to provide him with proof of various bonds, oaths, and licenses, and alleged that certain people involved in his criminal trial had practiced law without valid licenses. He also filed a Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) Financing Statement seeking to secure a purported debt of $250 million in gold dollars owed to him by Governor Dunleavy and the State of Alaska. The superior court dismissed the lawsuit because it failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, prompting Hout to appeal.The Supreme Court of the State of Alaska affirmed the superior court’s decision. The court highlighted that Hout's claims were consistent with the expressed belief system of a group known as “sovereign citizens” and stated that courts across the country have universally rejected these types of claims. The court noted that their jurisdiction to decide the case was derived from Alaska citizens who have provided “consent of the governed” by ratifying the Alaska Constitution. The court rejected Hout's argument that Alaska’s laws do not apply to him unless he provides personal consent to be governed by those laws.On the merits, the court found Hout's fraud claim to be without merit. The primary allegation underpinning Hout’s fraud claim was that Governor Dunleavy was legally obligated to provide him with proof of oaths, licenses, and bonds. The court held that there was no legal basis for this claim. The court also dismissed Hout’s civil rights claim seeking release from prison on the ground that certain officials who participated in his criminal trial were practicing law without valid licenses. The court explained that the proper vehicle for Hout’s claim seeking release from prison would be an application for post-conviction relief. Since Hout had already applied once for post-conviction relief, any subsequent application would be dismissed. View "Jeffrey Hout v. State of Alaska, Office of the Governor" on Justia Law

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The Alaska Department of Corrections’s Parole Board denied inmate Donald McDonald’s discretionary parole application; he subsequently sought injunctive relief against the Department, the Board, and the Department’s then-commissioner (collectively DOC). The McDonald asked a superior court to return his parole application to the Board with instructions that the Board consider applicable factors and support its conclusions with substantial evidence. Concluding that McDonald should have brought a post-conviction relief application rather than a civil suit, the court granted a motion to dismiss. Because the McDonald's claim was a post-conviction relief claim, the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the court’s decision. But it noted that the appropriate action would have been for the court to convert the lawsuit to a post-conviction relief application. View "McDonald v. Alaska Department of Corrections, et al." on Justia Law

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The Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) allows some inmates to serve a portion of their prison sentence outside a correctional facility while wearing electronic monitoring equipment. This case presented a jurisdictional question for the Alaska Supreme Court's review: did the superior court have jurisdiction to hear an appeal of DOC’s decision to remove an inmate from electronic monitoring and return the inmate to prison? Within that jurisdictional question iwass a more fundamental question: was DOC’s decision subject to the constitutional guarantee that “[n]o person shall be deprived of . . . liberty . . . without due process of law?” The Supreme Court held that due process applied. Although the Court rejected the argument that removal from electronic monitoring and remand to prison implicated the constitutional right to rehabilitation, the Court concluded that serving a sentence on electronic monitoring afforded a limited but constitutionally protected degree of liberty, akin to parole. Nevertheless, the Court held that the superior court did not have appellate jurisdiction to review DOC’s decision in this case. "Appellate review of an agency’s decision is possible only when the decision is the product of an adjudicative process in which evidence is produced, law is applied, and an adequate record is made. DOC’s decisional process in this case was not an adjudicative process and did not create a record that permits appellate review." The case was remanded to the superior court to convert this case from an appeal to a civil action so that the parties could create the record necessary for judicial review of DOC's decision. View "Alaska Department of Corrections v. Stefano" on Justia Law

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In Henry v. Alaska, the court of appeals held that a defendant who entered a plea agreement providing for a specific period of probation has the right, when being sentenced for a subsequent probation violation, to reject further probation and to serve a sentence of active imprisonment only. The court of appeals certified a question to the Alaska Supreme Court on whether the legislature intended to abrogate that right when it enacted AS 12.55.090(f). Jason Ray was arrested in October 2013 for stealing a pair of boots from a grocery store in Kodiak. Because Ray had two prior theft convictions, the State charged him with theft in the second degree. Ray pleaded guilty as part of a plea agreement pursuant to Alaska Criminal Rule 11. The agreement called for Ray to receive a sentence of 24 months’ imprisonment with 20 months suspended, followed by three years of supervised probation. Ray served his four months in prison and was then released on supervised probation. Ray admitted that he had violated two conditions, and the superior court found that he had violated two others. At the disposition hearing, Ray announced that he wanted to reject further probation. However, in addition to sentencing him to serve 16 months, the superior court placed Ray on unsupervised probation for five years. The only condition of this unsupervised probation was that Ray obey the law. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded did intend to abrogate Henry: although AS 12.55.090(f) did not expressly mention a defendant’s right to reject probation, its plain text precludes a judge from reducing or terminating a previously-agreed-upon period of probation unless both the prosecution and the defendant agree, and the legislative history does not persuade the Court that the legislature intended something other than the plain meaning of the language it used. View "Ray v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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A drunk driver lost control of his truck on a wet roadway and struck and killed two teenage girls. The driver pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder with a sentencing range of 13 to 20 years for each count. At the sentencing hearing, members of both victims’ families and two local law enforcement officers spoke, and the sentencing court viewed tribute videos for the two young victims. The court imposed a term of 20 years in prison with 4 years suspended on each count, for a composite sentence of 32 years to serve, noting that it was the highest sentence imposed in Alaska for an unintentional vehicular homicide. The court of appeals vacated the sentence based on several perceived errors in the sentencing court’s calculation of the appropriate sentence; it also identified evidentiary errors which it believed contributed to the emotionally charged sentencing hearing and improperly influenced the judge’s decision. The court of appeals directed that a different judge preside over resentencing. The State appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court concluded the superior court properly began its sentencing analysis in the benchmark range for second-degree murder and appropriately considered an aggravator. The Court could not conclude, as the court of appeals did, the superior court gave too much weight to the sentencing goals of general deterrence and community condemnation. The Supreme Court found it was an abuse of discretion to allow the testimony of two police officers as victim impact evidence and to admit victim tribute videos without first reviewing them for relevance and unfair prejudice. "We cannot say that the unusually severe sentence was untainted by these errors, but we do not believe that the superior court’s admission of the challenged evidence requires recusal on remand." The sentence was vacated and the case remanded for re-sentencing by the same judge. View "Alaska v. Graham" on Justia Law

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A defendant convicted of first-degree murder appealed his conviction to the Alaska court of appeals, arguing that the trial court erroneously instructed the jury on the law of self-defense. The court of appeals agreed the instruction was erroneous but concluded that the error was harmless and affirmed the defendant’s conviction. The defendant the Alaska Supreme Court to ask that it reverse the court of appeals’ decision and his conviction because the erroneous instruction relieved the State of its burden to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. To this, the Supreme Court agreed and reversed the decisions of the superior court and court of appeals and vacated defendant’s conviction because the challenged instruction was legally incorrect and impermissibly lightened the prosecution’s burden to disprove self-defense. View "Jones-Nelson v. Alaska" on Justia Law