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Stoner v. State (2/23/2018) ap-2588

Stoner v. State (2/23/2018) ap-2588


           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

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                                                                                Court of Appeals No. A-11976  

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


                                                                                          O  P  I  N  I  O  N  

STATE OF ALASKA,                                                                    as amended on rehearing 

                                          Appellee.                             No. 2588 - February 23, 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 Alaskalaw,afelony defendant whoabsconds fromofficial detention  


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 fromconversations 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 housewas operating under  


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 -                                                          2588

----------------------- 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 -                                                         2588

----------------------- 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 courtacceptedStoner's factual assertions 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 -                                                                                                                                                2588

----------------------- 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 claimis 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.  


                    Basedondueprocessconcerns,theAlaskaappellatecourts haverecognized  


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 -                                                         2588

----------------------- 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"mistakeoflaw"defenseis 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 -                                                             2588

----------------------- 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   contends   that   the   "mistake   of   law"  

doctrine does not defeat his claim.  He argues that, under the Alaska Supreme Court's             

decision in             Olson v. State               , 260 P.3d 1056 (Alaska 2011), he could not be prosecuted for                                                             

felony escape.                   

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


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

                                                                                                               Under the pertinent statute, when  


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.  


                            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.  

       4      AS 28.35.032(a).  

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

                                                                                     -  7 -                                                                                2588

----------------------- 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 -                                                                 2588

----------------------- 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.                                                                                                                                                                                            

                                                                     Stoner argues in the alternative that even if he is not entitled to relief under                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

 Olson, he is entitled to relief under the doctrine of "equitable estoppel". Stoner contends                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

that the State should be estopped from imposing any greater penalty for his act of escape                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

than the misdemeanor penalty that Stoner claims he expected -                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              i.e., no more than one                                                                        

year in jail.                                                

                                                                     But even assuming that the doctrine of equitable estoppel applies to people                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

who affirmatively decide to commit acts that they know to be unlawful (an issue that we                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      


do not decide),                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

                                                                                     the doctrine of equitable estoppel does not apply to all instances where  

                 7                 Compare Arnett v. State , 938 P.2d 1079 (Alaska App. 1997), a case in which the                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

defendant claimed that he received ineffective assistance of counsel because his defense   

attorney allegedly advised him to abscond during trial, and assisted him in doing so.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                This  

Court held that, under these circumstances, the law would not allow a defendant to raise a     

claim of ineffective assistance:                                                                                                                          "Arnett makes no claim of ignorance as to the unlawfulness                                                                          

of his conduct and no assertion that he was importuned by his attorney or entrapped by her  

into absconding.  In these unique circumstances, we think it proper to bar Arnett's attempt  

to take advantage of his attorney's purported incompetence."  Id. , 938 P.2d at 1082-83.  

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  -  9 -                                                                                                                                                                                                              2588

----------------------- Page 10-----------------------

a  person  relies  on  mistaken  information  received  from,  or  disseminated  by,  the  


government.  As explained by our supreme court in Anchorage v. Schneider , 685 P.2d  


94 (Alaska 1984):  



                               The   general   elements   of   equitable   estoppel   are  


                    (1) assertion of a position by conduct or word, (2) reasonable  


                    reliance  thereon,  and  (3)  resulting  prejudice.                           A  fourth  


                    element, most often explicitly stated in promissory estoppel  


                    cases, is that the estoppel will be enforced only to the extent  


                    that justice so requires.  We believe that this [fourth] factor  


                     should  play  an  important  role  when  considering  estoppel  


                    against [the government].                   Often, even where reliance has  


                    been foreseeable, reasonable, and substantial, the interest of  


                    justice  may  not  be  served  by  the  application  of  estoppel  


                    because the public interest would be significantly prejudiced.  


Schneider, 685 P.2d at 97 (citations and footnotes omitted).  


                    Thus, Stoner's claim of equitable estoppel required him to show (1) that he  


reasonably relied to his detriment on mistaken information from the government, and  


(2)  that  estopping  the  government  from  enforcing  the  law  of  escape  in  these  


circumstances is required in the interest of justice.  


                    The superior court rejected Stoner's equitable estoppel claim because the  


court concluded that the public had a significant interest in punishing Stoner's act of  


escape (to preserve public safety and order), while at the same time there was little equity  


in allowing Stoner to avoid the prescribed punishment for a crime that he committed after  


engaging in a "criminal calculus" - by which the court meant Stoner's "risk/benefit  


analysis of removing himself from official detention" to prevent or delay his sentencing.  


                                                              -  10 -                                                         2588

----------------------- Page 11-----------------------

                    We agree with the superior court's assessment, especially in light of what  


our supreme court said in Division of Insurance v. Schnell, 8 P.3d 351 (Alaska 2000):  


"We have rarely applied estoppel to bar the state's exercise of its sovereign police  


powers" because "where a government acts for the good of its citizens rather than a  


narrow proprietary interest, estoppel would be unjust to the public."  Id. at 355-56.  


                    Accordingly, we uphold the superior court's rejectionof Stoner's equitable  


estoppel claim.  



                    The judgement of the superior court is AFFIRMED.  


                                                            -  11 -                                                       2588

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