State supreme court rejects lawsuit

Posted: Tuesday, May 27, 2003

ANCHORAGE The state is not liable when a juvenile released from its custody later commits a murder, the Alaska Supreme Court has ruled.

The court was asked to consider a negligence case filed by the family of Anchorage cabdriver Richard Sandsness, who was killed by 17-year-old Darrel Whitaker seven weeks after Whitaker was released from McLaughlin Youth Center.

If caseworkers had to worry about getting sued for releasing a problem youth as part of a treatment plan, no one would ever be released early, the court unanimously concluded Friday.

''Rehabilitation rather than punishment is the express purpose of juvenile jurisdiction,'' wrote Justice Robert Eastaugh.

Sandsness, 46, was shot Aug. 21, 1993 during an attempted robbery. Whitaker told police he shot the cabdriver with a gun he had stolen from his father.

Whitaker pleaded no contest to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. The sentence was later found to be excessive and reduced to 30 years.

Sandsness' family filed a lawsuit against the state in 1995, alleging that the Division of Family and Youth Services was wrong to release Whitaker about five weeks before his official release date on a separate case involving vandalism, underage drinking and setting fires in a foster home.

His treatment supervisor had recommended he be released to his father's custody to work in a remote logging camp. Caseworkers and a review board evaluated Whitaker's progress and agreed.

Sandsness' family argued that DFYS should have known Whitaker had a propensity for violence and the state should have asked a judge to allow extension of his detention until he turned 19.

The state countered that Whitaker would have been out anyway on the date of the murder and said it had no legal responsibility for his actions once his official release date passed.

Superior Court Judge Sen Tan said a court could properly review whether DFYS acted reasonably when it decided not to request an extension of Whitaker's commitment.

The high court disagreed, saying the state had no duty to seek an extension of Whitaker's detention. The court returned the case to Tan with instructions to grant the state a summary judgment.

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