PETERSBURG, Alaska — Two men suing the Petersburg, Alaska borough, a local police officer, a regional narcotics task force and state law enforcement are trying to broaden the lawsuit into a class action that would allow more plaintiffs to join.
Danny Thompson and Greg Richeson claim in the lawsuit that Petersburg police officers in separate 2013 investigations obtained search warrants and seized property from their homes and did not return it for years.
Thompson said his belongings have since been returned but Richeson is still waiting for the return of his possessions, KFSK.org (http://bit.ly/2uUQsva ) reported Monday.
The lawsuit challenges the secrecy of search warrants for law enforcement investigations that do not result in criminal charges. If it ends up going to trial, the case will not go before a jury until next year.
Attorney Fred Triem argued in late July that the suit should be a class action, saying hundreds of other people in Alaska have faced the same situation.
“Their stuff has been taken away and they cannot get the warrant file or access to it because the only way they can get access is if the police filed a criminal case as a result of the warrant based on information they obtained when they served the warrant, then but only then the defendant can go in and see his warrant file,” he said. “Otherwise it remains sealed.”
Attorneys for the state and Petersburg borough counter that Richeson’s items have not been returned because he is the target of an ongoing investigation by the Petersburg Police Department. Triem disputes that. As for Thompson, charges were forwarded to the Juneau district attorney’s office in 2015 but dismissed by the office and his property was returned.
Alaska law requires police to obtain search warrants from judges or magistrate judges that spell out the reasons for the warrant. Police are required to give owners of seized property seized copies of warrants, copies of supporting affidavits justifying the warrants and receipts for seized property. Police are also required to make inventories of seized property.
Search warrants become part of the public record when criminal cases are 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 cases are filed. People whose property is seized can request inventories of those items but judges must approve requests for the information records to be unsealed.
The plaintiffs are seeking disclosure of court files in all search warrants and argue that Alaska’s court rules violate of the state’s constitution.
The defendants are 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 are former Sitka police chief Sheldon Schmitt and Chris Russell of the Alaska State Troopers for their administrative role with SEACAD.
A jury trial had been scheduled for August but was rescheduled for February.