Self-defense law change could cost state $450,000 a year

Posted: Friday, February 11, 2011

A proposed expansion of Alaska's self-defense law would cost the state an additional $450,000 a year in increased litigation costs, a top official at the Department of Law on Wednesday told a House committee holding a hearing on the bill.

The department is expecting a 25 percent increase in the number of murder and manslaughter cases that would be tried if the exceptions to a person's "duty to retreat" in a potential self-defense situation are broadened, said Richard Svobodny, deputy attorney general for the Department of Law's criminal division.

Alaska law requires a person contemplating the use of deadly force to defend himself or another to leave an encounter "if the person knows that, with complete personal safety and with complete safety as to others being defended, the person can avoid the necessity of using deadly force by leaving the area."

That so-called "duty to retreat," however, already has several exceptions. There is no obligation to escape if a person is at home, work, or defending a child or member of his household. Another provision allows a person to stand his ground if he is a guest or agent of someone legally in possession of the property where the encounter takes place.

House Bill 80, heard in the House Judiciary Committee, would add another exception to that duty if someone defends himself anywhere he has a right to be.

A fiscal note accompanying the bill first alerted legislators to the possible impact on the department's budget, and the note was met with some skepticism by at least one representative on the committee.

"I would think that this would reduce your budget, not increase it," said Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, "I mean, you're not going to prosecute as many people. I am really surprised this isn't a minus ($450,000) not a plus."

Thompson is a co-sponsor of the bill.

Svobodny agreed with a statement from Rep. Lindsey Holmes, D-Anchorage, that the department would likely be having to analyze the same number of self-defense claims each year, but more defense attorneys would want to go to trial if it would be harder for a prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt a killing wasn't in self-defense, as Alaska law requires.

"What the Department of Law may be thinking about is all of the really, murders out there where people say 'uh-uh, it was self defense,'" she said. "It wasn't what you or I would think of as self-defense."

Lt. Rodney Duty of the Alaska State Troopers' office spoke by telephone from Ketchikan. He said the State Troopers did not anticipate their expenses to increase if the bill passes.

Speaking before the committee, Brian Judy, Alaska state liaison for the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action, emphasized for the proposed law to give a person protection, the person would still need to be justified in using deadly force. He or she could not, for example, be the aggressor or provoke a situation where lethal force would be used, he said.

Lethal force is justified in Alaska if a person is defending himself or another against death, serious bodily injury, sexual assault, kidnapping or robbery.

"Basically, what this bill does is it removes one additional question that a person in a life-or-death, decision-making moment has to make. They already have to go through this whole thought process regarding whether or not they're justified. We're just removing the additional question they have to answer in their mind, 'Can I safely retreat?'"

Judy spoke at the request of Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Mat-Su. Neuman is the main sponsor of the bill.

An identical bill cleared the House last session with broad support, but never made it out of the Senate Finance Committee before the Legislature adjourned. In an interview with the Empire last week, Judy said he anticipated the House would pass the bill this year if it reaches the floor, but that there would be more resistance in the Senate, particularly in the Senate Judiciary Committee. He also noted the bill is beginning its way through the legislative process much earlier this year, as it did not receive its first hearing in committee until March 15 last session.

Committee Chairman Carl Gatto, R-Palmer, said he had received 22 letters in support of the bill and none in opposition.

"It's my personal belief this bill will reduce violence," he said.

The House Judiciary Committee will consider HB 80 again at 1 p.m. Friday. Gatto said he expected the committee would vote on the bill at that time.

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