Appeals court overturns two minor drug convictions

Posted: Monday, July 07, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) The Alaska Court of Appeals has thrown out two minor drug convictions based on illegal police conduct.

In a 2001 Fairbanks case, Samuel Carter was convicted of fourth-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance after Fairbanks police officers saw crack pipes and syringes in his hotel room drawer.

Carter opened the drawer when police ordered him to pack his belongings and vacate the room.

The court in a decision Friday said police had no right to evict Carter from the room even though it was past the Fairbanks Comfort Inn's normal checkout time. Therefore, any evidence they found as a result of the illegal eviction was inadmissible.

The police suspected Carter of criminal activity and had been watching him. They got permission from hotel management to search the room once Carter and other people who shared it with him had relinquished occupancy, thus losing their expectation of privacy.

However, hotel management had no problem with the occupants staying past the 1 p.m. checkout time and did not ask police to evict them, the court said.

Superior Court Judge Mary Greene allowed the prosecution to use the seized evidence against Carter. The appeals court reversed Greene's decision and reversed Carter's conviction.

In a 2000 Anchorage case, Brian Young was handcuffed by a police officer who saw him hide something under a closet door at the Mush Inn. The item proved to be several rocks of crack cocaine wrapped in tissue paper. Young was subsequently convicted of fourth-degree drug possession.

The officer had responded to a disturbance call that did not involve Young. Young came around a corner of the building, looked surprised to see police, then quickly backed away. An officer, his suspicions aroused, followed.

The court said a person's obvious desire to avoid police is not by itself legal justification for ''investigative detention.'' And although the motel's ''reputation as the scene of illegal drug activity,'' plus Young's effort to hide something from police, was a reasonable basis for police suspicion, that's not the same thing as probable cause for a search.

Without probable cause, the officer had no right to seize and open the package, the court said.

When asked by the officer what he had hidden under the door, Young said he hadn't hidden anything. In court, the state argued that denial of ownership meant Young had abandoned the item, so no search warrant or probable cause was needed. The court said Young had hidden the item, not discarded it.

Superior Court Judge Mike Wolverton allowed prosecutors to use the seized drugs against Young. The appeals court reversed Wolverton's decision and overturned Young's conviction.

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