Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal 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

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Before the Alaska Supreme Court in this case was a constitutional claim arising from the application of a juvenile jurisdiction waiver statute. A minor subject to the statutory provision did not testify at his waiver hearing and did not overcome the presumption enumerated in the statute; the superior court granted the State’s waiver petition. The minor appealed, contending the statutory rebuttable presumption and shifted burden of proof violated his constitutional right against self-incrimination and his constitutional due process rights. The Supreme Court explained that fundamental fairness required adopting an exclusionary rule when a minor bears the burden of rebutting the statutory presumption of being unamenable to treatment in the juvenile justice system: the minor’s testimonial evidence at the waiver hearing cannot be used as substantive evidence over the minor’s objection at any subsequent juvenile adjudication or adult criminal proceedings. View "C.D., a Minor v. State of Alaska" on Justia Law

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The court of appeals determined that Paino Manuel Alvarez-Perdomo was coerced to take the stand at his criminal trial, thus violating his privilege against self-incrimination in both the federal and Alaska constitutions. But the court of appeals held this error was not a structural error requiring reversal, and that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The Alaska Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide an issue of first impression: whether the violation of a criminal defendant’s right not to take the stand was a structural error., The Court concluded it was indeed a structural error, because it implicated personal interests more fundamental than the ordinary risk of a wrongful conviction. Accordingly, the Court reversed the appellate court and remanded for a new trial. View "Alvarez-Perdomo v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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This case involved prisoner Richard DeRemer's pro se appeal of the superior court’s dismissal of his civil complaint against three Alaska Department of Corrections (DOC) employees. DeRemer alleged numerous violations of his constitutional rights, and he requested declaratory relief and damages. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint addressing some, but not all, of DeRemer's claims. Specifically, the defendants did not address his First Amendment retaliation claim or request for declaratory relief. The court relied on this motion and dismissed the prisoner’s claims “for the reasons set forth in defendants’ motion,” failing to provide any independent analysis of the prisoner’s claims. Because the court, by adopting the defendants’ reasoning, failed to address all of the prisoner’s claims, the Alaska Supreme Court reversed the court’s order with respect to the First Amendment retaliation claim and remanded for further proceedings. The Supreme Court affirmed the court’s dismissal of the prisoner’s other claims. View "DeRemer, III v. Turnbull" on Justia Law

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When the Department of Corrections (DOC) discovered that one of its contract employees, a substance abuse counselor, was in an “intimate relationship” with a prisoner in violation of prison policy, DOC barred the counselor and her parents from visiting the prisoner or putting money in his prison bank account. The prisoner sued DOC, alleging that these restrictions violated his constitutional and statutory rights to rehabilitation. When the prisoner moved for summary judgment, DOC moved to amend its answer to deny the statutory claim it had failed to deny in its original answer. The prisoner then moved to amend his complaint to add a claim asserting the constitutional rights of the counselor and her parents. The superior court granted DOC’s motion to amend, denied the prisoner’s motion to amend as futile, and granted summary judgment in DOC’s favor. The prisoner appealed. The Alaska Supreme Court found the DOC’s visitation restrictions were reasonable exercises of its authority to address legitimate penological interests and therefore did not violate the prisoner’s constitutional or statutory rights to rehabilitation. Furthermore, the Supreme Court concluded the superior court did not abuse its discretion when it granted DOC’s motion to amend its answer and denied the prisoner’s motion to amend his complaint. View "Ebli v. Alaska, Department of Corrections" on Justia Law