A lawsuit filed in Petersburg is challenging the seizure of personal property by local, regional and state law enforcement along with the search warrants that led to that property seizure. The plaintiffs are also arguing to expand the civil suit to include law enforcement agencies statewide.
The plaintiffs in this case are Petersburg residents Danny Thompson and Greg Richeson and they are suing the Petersburg borough, local police officer Kalin Rosse and the Southeast Alaska Cities Against Drugs or SEACAD. That’s a cooperative drug enforcement effort involving the Alaska State Troopers and police departments around Southeast. Also named in the suit are former Sitka police chief Sheldon Schmitt and Chris Russell of the Alaska State Troopers for their involvement with SEACAD.
The case alleges that the defendants obtained search warrants in 2013 and entered the plaintiffs’ homes in separate investigations. The plaintiffs say the police seized coins, guns, computers, electronics, cameras, cell phones, personal papers, jewelry and other private property and did not return the items for years.
“The suit seeks to remedy two things, a police procedure that uses search warrants to punish people and secondly to remedy a court rule that allows the police to obtain warrants and keep them sealed, keep them secret, for years and years after the police get the warrant with the result that the target of the warrant cannot see the evidence upon which the warrant was issued,” said Fred Triem, the attorney for the two men.
The property was seized from Thompson and Richeson during investigations that did not result in any criminal charges.
Alaska law requires police to obtain a search warrant from a judge or magistrate judge and spells out the reasons for issuing a warrant. Police are required to give the owner of property seized a copy of the warrant, a copy of the supporting affidavit for obtaining the warrant and a receipt for the property taken. Police are also required to make an inventory of property seized.
Search warrants become part of the public record once a criminal case is filed in court. However, according to the state’s court rules, search warrants, affidavits, receipts and inventories are kept sealed, and not part of the public record for four years if no criminal case is filed. Someone who has had property seized can request an inventory of those items but that unsealing request needs approval by a judge.
The plaintiffs are seeking disclosure of court files in all search warrants and argue that Alaska’s court rules are a violation of the state’s constitution. Triem has also filed a motion to amend the lawsuit to include additional plaintiffs as well as increase the number of defendants to include regional drug task forces across Alaska, the Statewide Drug Enforcement Unit and the Alaska Department of Public Safety. Triem said he wants to make this case a class action suit against law enforcement agencies statewide.
Triem argues that someone who has property seized ends up being punished without any criminal charge. “The police take the stuff away and they keep it for years and so the target of the warrant is punished,” he said. “The target of the warrant suffers a punishment because of the fine that’s imposed by the police in the form of the deprivation of their property and the loss of the use of their property.”
Attorneys for the defendants are opposing the motion to expand the lawsuit.
In court filings, attorneys representing the Petersburg borough and the state of Alaska deny many of the claims made in the civil suit. Assistant attorney general Marianna Carpeneti, representing Russell of the state troopers, points out that Thompson’s property and effects have been returned to him. Carpeneti argues that the plaintiffs damages are caused by misconduct of other unnamed third parties. Carpeneti declined a KFSK interview request.
Timothy Bowman, an attorney for the borough and police officer Rosse, declined an interview request as well. However in an email Bowman writes that the borough does not believe the case has merit. He writes, “Property is seized and held as evidence all over the country every hour of every day in conjunction with legitimate criminal investigations like these. Yet lawsuits like this are rare because the seizure and holding of evidence is a critical aspect of enforcing the law. The plaintiffs’ actual grievance is simply that they do not like the well-established law governing the warrant process.”
In an oral argument last November, Bowman argued that Rosse the local police officer operated completely within the bounds of Alaska law. He suggested if the plaintiffs didn’t like the law they needed to seek change through the legislature.
The issue is coming up in the state capital this year. North Pole Republican Tammie Wilson’s House Bill 42 seeks to create a hearing process for people not charged with a crime to regain seized property. It has bi-partisan sponsorship and has had one hearing in the House judiciary committee.
As for the Petersburg court case, superior court judge William Carey has yet to rule on whether the case can be expanded to include additional plaintiffs and defendants. The attorneys this month filed lists of witnesses expected to testify during a trial. The case is scheduled to go to trial in August.