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Stoner v. State (1/19/2018) ap-2584

Stoner v. State (1/19/2018) ap-2584


              The text           of   this opinion can be corrected before the opinion is published in the                                  

              Pacific Reporter                .   Readers are encouraged to bring typographical or other formal                                     

              errors to the attention of the Clerk of the Appellate Courts:    

                                                       303 K Street, Anchorage, Alaska  99501  

                                                                        Fax:  (907) 264-0878  

                                                            E-mail:  corrections@  

                               IN THE COURT OF APPEALS OF THE STATE OF ALASKA                                                           



                                                                                                             Court of Appeals No. A-11976  


                                                         Appellant,                                     Trial Court No. 3AN-12-11922 CR  


                                                                                                                           O  P  I  N  I  O  N  



                                                         Appellee.                                            No. 2584 - January 19, 2018  


                             Appeal   from  the   Superior   Court,  Third  Judicial                                                        District,  


                             Anchorage,  Warren W. Matthews and Michael L. Wolverton,  



                             Appearances:  Brooke  Berens,  Assistant  Public  Advocate, and  


                             Richard Allen, Public Advocate, Anchorage, for the Appellant.  


                            Nancy R. Simel, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal  


                             Appeals,  Anchorage,  and  James  E.  Cantor,  Acting  Attorney  


                             General, Juneau, for the Appellee.  


                             Before:  Mannheimer, Chief Judge, and Allard and Wollenberg,  




                             Judge MANNHEIMER.  


                             Cory Lynn Stoner, a felony probationer, absconded from a halfway house.                                                                                       

Stoner   had   been   placed   there   by   the   Department   of   Corrections   while   he   awaited  

sentencing for violating his felony probation.                                                    

----------------------- Page 2-----------------------


                    Under Alaska law, a felony defendant who absconds from officialdetention  


is guilty of a class B felony - second-degree escape.   But the residents' handbook at  


Stoner's halfway house erroneously stated that felony defendants who absconded from  


the facility would be guilty of "unlawful evasion".  Stoner was aware (apparently, from  


previous experience, and perhaps from conversations with other residents of the halfway  


house) that the crime of "unlawful evasion" was only  a  misdemeanor.   According to  


Stoner, he decided that it was worth the risk to abscond from the halfway house, since  


he believed that the penalty was no more than one year in prison.  


                    After Stoner was indicted for second-degree escape, he asked the superior  


court to dismiss this felony charge.  Stoner argued that the halfway house handbook was  


at least partially responsible for misleading him into thinking that his crime was only a  


misdemeanor. Stoner further argued that because the halfway house was operatingunder  


a  contract  with  the  Department  of  Corrections,  any  misleading information  in  the  


handbook should be attributed to the State of Alaska itself.   Thus, Stoner concluded,  


even though he absconded from the halfway house, it was unfair for the State of Alaska  


to prosecute him for a felony.  


                    The superior court denied Stoner's motion to dismiss the indictment, and  


Stoner was ultimately convicted of second-degree escape.  


                    Stoner now appeals his conviction, renewing his argument that it is unfair  


to convict him of felony escape when the information in the halfway house handbook  


was at least partially responsible for leading him to believe that his crime would only be  


a misdemeanor.  


                    For  the  reasons  explained  in  this  opinion,  we  affirm  Stoner's  felony  



                                                              - 2 -                                                          2584

----------------------- Page 3-----------------------


           Underlying facts  


                    In November 2012, Cory Lynn Stoner was facing petitions to revoke his  


probation in two felony cases. The superior court had already found that Stoner violated  


his probation, and he was awaiting sentencing for these violations.  


                    Pending his sentencing, the Department of Corrections placed Stoner at a  


halfway house - the Parkview Center.  The Parkview Center was owned and operated  


by a private company, under contract with the Department of Corrections.  


                    About a week after Stoner was transferred to the Parkview Center, the staff  


discovered a mobile phone and a telephone card hidden under his mattress.  This was a  


violation of the Center's rules, and Stoner knew that he would be sent back to jail.  So  


instead, Stoner fled.  


                    Stoner was apprehended about three months later, and he was charged with  


second-degree escape under AS 11.56.310(a)(1)(B).   This  statute makes it a class B  


felony to unlawfully "remove[] oneself from ... official detention for a felony".  


                    Stoner asked the superior court to dismiss this felony charge on the ground  


that the Parkview staff misled him as to the seriousness of the crime he would commit  


if he absconded from the Parkview Center.  


                    Stoner's argument was based on the fact that, during his orientation session  


at the Parkview Center, he was given a 52-page residents' handbook.  One passage in  


this handbook warned Parkview Center residents that they were not allowed to leave the  


Center without authorization.  The handbook then mistakenly stated that residents who  


were  in  custody  for  a  felony  would  be  charged  with  "unlawful  evasion"  under  


AS 11.56.340 if they left the halfway house without permission.  


                    In fact, AS 11.56.340 does not apply to felony prisoners who abscond from  


a halfway house.             Instead,  this statute  applies to misdemeanor prisoners - persons  

                                                              - 3 -                                                          2584

----------------------- Page 4-----------------------

"charged with or convicted of a misdemeanor" - who fail to return to official detention                                                                                                                                                                               

after they have been granted a "temporary leave ... for a specific purpose                                                                                                                                                                                      or   [for a]   

limited period".                                      

                                              The statute that applies to Stoner's situation is the second-degree escape                                                                                                                                                     

 statute under which he was indicted, AS 11.56.310(a)(1)(B).                                                                                                                                                    

                                             But in Stoner's                                        motion to dismiss, he asserted that he had relied on the                                                                                                                              

mistaken information in the Parkview handbook when he made his decision to abscond                                                                                                                                                                                       

-  i.e., the handbook's mistaken description of the crime as "unlawful evasion".                                                                                                                                                                                                   

                                              The Parkview handbook did not say that this offense was a misdemeanor.                                                                                                                                                                                   

In fact, the handbook did not make any assertion as to what level of offense "unlawful                                                                                                                                                                             

evasion" was.                                      However,   Stoner asserted that he already knew,                                                                                                                               based   on his prior                              

experience in the criminal justice system,                                                                                                       and based on his conversations with other                                                                                        


Parkview inmates, that the crime of "unlawful evasion" was a misdemeanor.                                                                                                                                                                                                

                                              Stoner  claimed  that  he  decided  to  abscond  from  the  Parkview  Center  


because  he  weighed  the  risk  of  spending up  to  one  additional year  in  jail,  and  he  


concluded that it was worth it.  He asserted that he would not have absconded if he had  


known that he could be prosecuted for a felony.  


                                              The superior court accepted Stoner's factualassertions as true, but the court  


nevertheless denied Stoner's motion to dismiss the indictment.  The court concluded that  


even if Stoner mistakenly believed that he was committing a misdemeanor rather than  


a felony, this did not entitle Stoner to dismissal of the felony escape charge.  


                                             Following a jury trial, Stoner was convicted of second-degree escape.  He  


now appeals that conviction, renewing his argument that the felony charge should have  


            1          AS 11.56.340(b).                                          

                                                                                                                                           - 4 -                                                                                                                                       2584

----------------------- Page 5-----------------------


been dismissed because of the mistaken information in the Parkview Center's residents'  




          Our analysis of Stoner's claim  


                     In his briefs to this Court, Stoner argues that it violates the constitutional  


guarantee of due process for the State to prosecute and convict him of felony escape,  


when he mistakenly believed that his act of absconding from the halfway house was only  


a misdemeanor. But Stoner's claim is contrary to an established doctrine of criminal law.  


                     It is a general principle of the criminal law that a person's ignorance of a  


criminal statute, or a person's misunderstanding of a criminal statute, is not a defense to  


a prosecution under that statute.  This principle is codified in AS 11.81.620(a):  



                    Effect of ignorance or mistake upon liability.  


                               (a)  Knowledge, recklessness, or criminal negligence  


                     as to whether conduct constitutes an offense, or knowledge,  


                     recklessness,  or  criminal  negligence  as  to  the  existence,  


                     meaning, or application of the provision of law defining an  


                     offense, is not an element of an offense unless the provision  


                     of  law  clearly  so  provides.               Use  of  the  phrase  "intent  to  


                     commit   a  crime",   "intent   to  promote  or   facilitate  the  


                     commission of a crime", or like terminology in a provision of  


                     law does not require that the defendant act with a culpable  


                     mental state as to the criminality of the conduct  that is the  


                     object of the defendant's intent.  


                     Based on due process concerns, the Alaska appellate courts have recognized  


a limited exception to this principle  in  situations where a person acts in reasonable  


reliance on an official pronouncement or a formal interpretation of the law issued by the  


chief enforcement officer or agency entrusted with the enforcement of that law.  Stevens  

                                                               - 5 -                                                          2584

----------------------- Page 6-----------------------

v.  State, 135 P.3d 688, 695 (Alaska App. 2006);                                       Ostrosky v. State             , 704 P.2d 786, 791           


(Alaska App. 1985).                     

                        But this limited "mistake of law" defense is not available to people who rely  


on a mistaken statement or interpretation of the law received from a police officer or  


other subordinate officer.  Morgan v. State, 943 P.2d 1208, 1212 (Alaska App. 1997);  


Haggren v. State, 829 P.2d 842, 844 (Alaska App. 1992).  


                        And, of course, this defense is not available to people who form their own  


mistaken opinion about the law.  Stevens, 135 P.3d at 695; Busby v. State, 40 P.3d 807,  


816-17 (Alaska App. 2002).  


                        In  the present case, Stoner claims that his decision to abscond from the  


halfway house was prompted, at least in part, by his mistaken belief that his potential  


punishment for this crime would not exceed one year in prison (the maximum sentence  


for a class A misdemeanor).  


                        But Stoner does not contend that the Parkview staff told him that his act of  


absconding would be a misdemeanor, or that the Parkview handbook stated that his act  


of absconding would be a misdemeanor.   Rather, Stoner asserts that (1) the halfway  


house handbook erroneously described the name of his crime as "unlawful evasion", and  


(2) Stoner relied on his own personal knowledge (based on his prior experience in the  


criminal justice system, as well as conversations he had with other offenders) that the  


crime of unlawful evasion was a misdemeanor.  


                        Given these circumstances, Stoner's claim amounts to the assertion that he  


falsely concluded, based on inferences he personally  drew, that his act of absconding  


      2     See also Morgan v. State                  , 943 P.2d       1208, 1212 (Alaska               App.1997);           Haggren v.State             ,  

829 P.2d 842, 844 (Alaska App. 1992).                               

                                                                         - 6 -                                                                    2584

----------------------- Page 7-----------------------

would be a misdemeanor.                                          Thus, Stoner's claim is foreclosed by the decisions in                                                                              Stevens,  

Busby,  Morgan, and                                  Haggren.    

                                  In his briefs to this Court, Stoner does not directly address these decisions                                                                                     

or this underlying doctrine of criminal law.                                                              Rather, to support his claim that he could not                                                          

be prosecuted for felony escape, Stoner relies primarily on the Alaska Supreme Court's                                                                                                                  

decision in                 Olson v. State                      , 260 P.3d 1056 (Alaska 2011).                                                     

                                  Olson  involved a motorist who was arrested on suspicion of driving under                                                                                                 

                                                                                                                                  3   Under the pertinent statute, when  

the influence, and who refused to take a breath test.                                                                                                                                                       

an arrested motorist indicates that they will not take a breath test, the police must advise  



the motorist that failure to take the test is a separate crime.  


                                  In Olson's case, the police officer informed him that failure to take the test  


would be a crime - but the officer then went beyond this legal duty, by telling Olson  


that his act of refusing  the  breath  test could be either a felony or a misdemeanor,  


depending on Olson's prior DUI record.   Then the officer misdescribed what kind of  


prior record would lead to a felony charge.  Based on the officer's erroneous description  


of the law, Olson could reasonably have concluded that his refusal to take the breath test  


would only be a misdemeanor, when in fact his refusal would be a felony. 5  


                                  Olson ultimately refused to take the breath test, and he was indicted for  


felony breath-test refusal.  Olson argued that he was denied due process of law because  


he  was  forced to choose whether to take the breath test after he received the police  


         3       Olson, 260 P.3d at 1058.



                 AS 28.35.032(a).



                 Olson, 260 P.3d at 1058-59.

                                                                                                        - 7 -                                                                                                   2584

----------------------- Page 8-----------------------

officer's erroneous description of the law - a description which misleadingly informed                                                     


Olson that he would face only a misdemeanor penalty for refusing.                                                           

                        The supreme court agreed that Olson had been denied due process of law  


in this situation:  



                                    [D]ue process concerns can arise if the information  


                        [given to an arrested motorist] understates the consequences  


                        of  the  offense.               Misinformation  can  impair  an  arrestee's  


                        ability to make an informed decision about [the] potential  


                        consequences  flowing from  his  refusal,  and  may  actually  


                        discourage the arrestee from taking the test.  The decision ...  


                        whether to comply with an arresting officer's request to take  


                        a sobriety  test is not a simple one, and ... it should not be  


                        based on an ignorance of the actual consequences of refusing.  


                        Here,  the [officer's warning] understated the penalties for  


                        Olson's refusal.                We conclude  it would be fundamentally  


                        unfair  to  allow  the  State  to  [inform  an  arrestee  of]  one  


                        penalty, on which the arrestee's decision relies, and then later  


                        convict him of a charge that carries a greater penalty.  


Olson, 260 P.3d at 1061 (internal quotations and footnotes omitted).  


                        It is unclear to what extent the decision in Olson may have overturned or  


limited the series of Alaska cases holding that a defendant can only claim "mistake of  


law"  when  the  defendant's  mistaken  belief  about  the  law  is  based  on  an  official  


pronouncement or a formal interpretation of the law issued by the chief enforcement  


officer or agency entrusted with the enforcement of that law.  


                        But in any event, Olson involved a direct misstatement of law by a police  


officer who was holding the defendant in custody, and who  was  demanding that the  


      6     Id.  at 1059-1060.              

                                                                         - 8 -                                                                     2584

----------------------- Page 9-----------------------


defendant  make  an  immediate  choice  between  (1)  supplying  the  government  with  


potentially incriminating evidence or (2) committing a new crime.  


                    Here, Stoner is claiming that he reached an erroneous conclusion about the  


law of escape, not based on the direct statement of a police official, but rather based on  


the combination of (1) a misstatement in a handbook written by a contractor working for  


the Department of Corrections and (2) Stoner's own personal understanding of the law.  


                    Moreover,  no  state  officer  demanded  that  Stoner  immediately  choose  


between  absconding  from  the  halfway  house  or  staying  in  custody  to  await  his  


sentencing hearing.  


                    For these reasons, we conclude that the Alaska Supreme Court's decision  


in Olson does not apply to Stoner's situation.  



                    The judgement of the superior court is AFFIRMED.  

                                                              - 9 -                                                         2584

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