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State v. Williams

Court of Appeals of Alaska

August 28, 2015

STATE OF ALASKA, Appellant,
v.
LARRIES LEE WILLIAMS, Appellee

Appeal from the Superior Court, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Michael L. Wolverton, Judge. Trial Court No. 3AN-11-5513 CR.

Timothy W. Terrell, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Special Prosecutions and Appeals, Anchorage, and Michael C. Geraghty, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellant.

Renee McFarland, Assistant Public Defender, and Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for the Appellee.

Before: Mannheimer, Chief Judge, Allard, Judge, and Hanley, District Court Judge.[*]

OPINION

Page 805

MANNHEIMER, Judge.

For centuries, Anglo-American law has recognized the power of the courts to hold litigants in contempt for disruption of judicial proceedings and willful disobedience of judicial orders. The question presented in this appeal is: When someone violates (or allegedly violates) a court order, who decides whether the situation merits a contempt proceeding?

Traditionally, the law has entrusted this decision to the court whose order was disobeyed. But the State argues that the executive branch now has the authority to pursue contempt proceedings against people and organizations who violate court orders, and the authority to require the court to adjudicate the contempt charge, regardless of how the court views the matter.

For the reasons explained in this opinion, we conclude that the State's view of the law is incorrect. Alaska law does, indeed, give executive branch prosecutors the authority to initiate contempt charges. But the judicial branch retains the authority to decide whether a particular contempt charge should go forward to adjudication. The executive branch can not force the court to entertain a contempt proceeding after the court has affirmatively decided that a contempt prosecution is unwarranted.

Underlying facts

The defendant in this case, Larries Lee Williams, was subpoenaed to appear and testify before an Anchorage grand jury in connection with a homicide. Williams failed to appear, so the State obtained a warrant for his arrest. About a month later, Williams was arrested on this warrant.

In the meantime, the grand jury hearing to which Williams had been subpoenaed went forward -- without Williams's testimony -- and the State obtained the indictment it was seeking.

Page 806

Following Williams's arrest, he was brought before the superior court. At that time, the State filed a criminal information against Williams, charging him with contempt of court under AS 09.50.010(10) for failing to honor the grand jury subpoena.

Williams moved to dismiss the contempt charge, arguing that the State had not been prejudiced by his failure to appear (since the State obtained its indictment anyway). The State opposed the dismissal, arguing that the current version of Alaska's contempt statute (enacted in 2006) no longer required proof that the defendant's disobedience to a court order had actually prejudiced the complaining party. In the alternative, the State argued that Williams's failure to appear at grand jury had, in and of itself, prejudiced the State's interests.

The superior court granted Williams's motion to dismiss the contempt charge, but not on the ground that Williams proposed. Instead, the superior court declared that the 2006 version of the contempt statute was void for vagueness, in that it failed to provide intelligible standards for differentiating the conduct that would support a charge of criminal contempt versus a charge of civil contempt. In addition, the superior court found that Williams had been the victim of selective prosecution -- i.e., that the State had acted arbitrarily in charging Williams with criminal contempt (and not charging any other prospective witnesses who failed to honor their subpoenas).

For these reasons, the superior court dismissed the criminal contempt charge against Williams. The State now appeals.

We affirm the dismissal of Williams's contempt charge -- but not for the reasons given by the superior court. As we explain in this opinion, even though Alaska's contempt statutes, AS 09.50.010 and AS 09.50.020, may give the executive branch the authority to initiate a contempt charge based on a person's failure to comply with a court order, the ultimate authority to decide whether that charge should go forward to trial and judgement rests with the judiciary -- more specifically, with the court whose order has been violated.

In Williams's case, the superior court did not dismiss the contempt charge under this rationale. However, after allowing the State to explain why Williams should be punished for criminal contempt, the court clearly concluded that a criminal prosecution was not warranted. This being so, the court had the authority to dismiss the charge regardless of the district attorney's wishes.

The concept of contempt, and the distinction between criminal and civil contempt

As our supreme court explained in State v. Browder, 486 P.2d 925 (Alaska 1971), and again in Johansen v. State, 491 P.2d 759 (Alaska 1971), the law has long recognized the courts' authority to prosecute and punish people for disrupting judicial proceedings and for willfully violating court orders.[1]

In the nineteenth century, both English and American courts adopted a distinction between " criminal" contempt and " civil" contempt in cases where a person violates a court order.[2] This distinction does not rest on the defendant's conduct, but rather on the consequence that the court believes is appropriate for the defendant's act of disobedience.

As the supreme court explained in Johansen, 491 P.2d at 763-64, a prosecution for contempt is classified as a " criminal" contempt if the punishment to be inflicted is a fixed term of imprisonment, a fixed fine, or some other one-time punishment intended to vindicate the authority of the court by imposing consequences for a past act of disobedience.

In contrast, a prosecution for contempt is classified as " civil" if the punishment (1) is primarily designed to benefit a litigant who is harmed or disadvantaged by the defendant's continuing refusal or neglect to obey a court order, and if the punishment (2) " is conditional upon the defendant's continued refusal to comply with the court's order." Id. at 764. That is, a prosecution for contempt is " civil" if the punishment is designed

Page 807

to coerce an obstinate or neglectful party to honor their obligations under the court's order, and if the punishment ceases once that party has complied with their obligations.

(A classic example of a " civil" punishment for contempt is the imprisonment of a recalcitrant witness until the witness agrees to testify, or the imposition of a daily fine on an organization, or its leaders, until they comply with an injunction.)

Because the same act of disobedience to a court order can give rise to a prosecution for criminal contempt or a prosecution for civil contempt (or conceivably both[3]), it is often not particularly helpful to refer to an act of disobedience as a " criminal contempt" or a " civil contempt" . These phrases do not describe the act of disobedience. Rather, they describe the type of prosecution and punishment that the defendant will face for the act of disobedience.

We note that, in the current version of AS 09.50.020(a) (as amended in 2006), the term " civil contempt" is used in a way that does not conform to this established law. The statute appears to envision a one-time, fixed monetary penalty for each instance of " civil contempt" . But as we have just explained, the three legal premises of civil contempt proceedings are: (1) that there is an ongoing violation of a court order, (2) that the contemnor's punishment is open-ended (for as long as the willful disobedience ...


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