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Moran v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

September 2, 2016

CHARLES P. MORAN, Appellant,

         Appeal from the Superior Court, Third Judicial District, Trial Court No. 3KN-11-1025 CR Kenai, Anna M. Moran, Judge.

          Charles P. Moran, in propria persona, Soldotna, for the Appellant.

          Callie Patton Kim, Assistant Public Defender, and Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for the Alaska Public Defender Agency, appearing as amicus curiae aligned with the Appellant.

          Terisia Chleborad, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Michael C. Geraghty and Craig W. Richards, Attorneys General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

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



         In the early morning of June 26, 2011, Charles P. Moran was arrested for assaulting his wife Amanda. Later that day, Moran initiated the first of seven telephone calls that he made to his wife from jail.

         Moran told Amanda that he loved her. When Amanda complained about her injuries, and when she blamed Moran for causing those injuries, Moran told Amanda that she had been injured by falling down the stairs, and then he told her that he did not want to say anything more about this matter over the phone.

         Moran was subsequently convicted of two criminal charges: one count of third-degree assault, [1] and one count of second-degree unlawful contact. [2] Moran now challenges the validity of those convictions.

         With regard to Moran's unlawful contact conviction, the statute that defines this crime, AS 11.56.755(a), declares that a defendant commits the crime of second-degree unlawful contact if, having been arrested for one of the crimes defined in AS 11.41 ("offenses against the person") or for any other crime of domestic violence, the defendant "initiates communication or attempts to initiate communication with the alleged victim of the crime" before the defendant's initial appearance in front of a judge or magistrate (or before the dismissal of the criminal charge, if that occurs first).

         Moran's argument on appeal hinges on the fact that this statute does not expressly require the State to prove that a defendant was ever notified that it would be illegal for the defendant to communicate with (or attempt to communicate with) the alleged victim. Moran argues that the statute is unconstitutional because it does not require proof of notice.

         More specifically, Moran contends that, unless defendants are told about this statutory prohibition, defendants would have no reason to think that it would be unlawful for them to communicate with the victim. Thus, Moran argues, the statutory definition of the crime violates the constitutional guarantee of due process of law.

         The State responds that Moran is essentially arguing that his conviction should be set aside because he was unaware that there was a statute that made his conduct a crime. Relying on the maxim, "ignorance of the law is no excuse", the State argues that it does not matter whether Moran knew that his act of telephoning his wife constituted a crime.

         For the reasons explained in this opinion, we conclude that Moran has the better of this argument. Before the State could lawfully impose a criminal penalty on Moran for telephoning his spouse, the State was required (at a minimum) to prove that Moran was told that it was unlawful for him to contact his spouse. We therefore reverse Moran's conviction for second-degree unlawful contact.

         With regard to Moran's third-degree assault conviction, Moran argues that the trial judge improperly allowed the State to rely on inadmissible evidence at trial, and he also argues that his trial on this charge should have been bifurcated (because one element of the State's proof was that Moran had prior convictions for assault). For the reasons explained in this opinion, we conclude that neither of those claims has merit.

         The constitutional limits on the doctrine that "ignorance of the law is no excuse"

         The well-known maxim, "Ignorance of the law is no excuse", encapsulates two inter-related principles: (1) that the government normally is not required to prove that a criminal defendant was aware of the fact that a statute prohibited the defendant's conduct, and (2) that a defendant normally is not allowed to defend a criminal charge by asserting ignorance of the governing law.

         These two principles clearly apply when the conduct for which the defendant is being punished is "malum in se" - that is, "[conduct] which reasoning members of society regard as condemnable". Hentzner v. State, 613 P.2d 821, 826 (Alaska 1980). In such cases, a defendant's "awareness of the commission of the [prohibited] act necessarily carries with it an awareness of wrongdoing", and it does not matter whether the defendant was subjectively aware that there was a criminal statute covering their conduct. Ibid.

         The supreme court described this general rule in Alex v. State, 484 P.2d 677 (Alaska 1971):

[The government need not prove a person's] awareness that [his] given conduct ... is a "wrongdoing" in the sense that it is proscribed by law, but rather ... an awareness that one is committing the specific acts which are defined by law as a "wrongdoing". It is ... no defense that one was not aware [that] his acts ... were proscribed by law. So long as one acts intentionally, with cognizance of his behavior, he acts with the requisite awareness of wrongdoing. In the words of [United States Supreme Court] Justice Holmes:
If a man intentionally adopts certain conduct in certain circumstances known to him, and that conduct is forbidden by the law under those circumstances, he intentionally breaks the law in the only ...

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