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Hart v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

April 14, 2017

JONATHON RHEA HART, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF ALASKA, Appellee.

         Appeal from the Superior Court No. 1KE-13-897 CR, First Judicial District, Ketchikan, Trevor Stephens and William B. Carey, Judges.

          Evan Chyun, Assistant Public Advocate, Appeals and Statewide Defense Section, and Richard Allen, Public Advocate, Anchorage, for the Appellant.

          Diane L. Wendlandt, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Craig W. Richards, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

          Before: Mannheimer, Chief Judge, Allard, Judge, and Coats, Senior Judge. [*]

          OPINION

          COATS Senior Judge.

         Jonathon Rhea Hart was convicted of one count of second-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance and one count of third-degree misconduct involving a controlled substance.[1] Prior to trial, Hart moved to suppress evidence seized pursuant to a search warrant, alleging that the warrant was issued based on information that did not satisfy the Aguilar/Spinelli test for probable cause. Hart argued, among other claims, that the court issuing the warrant should have rejected the statements that two drug dealers made to a police informant as too unreliable to support the warrant. After a hearing, the superior court denied the suppression motion.

         On appeal, Hart first contends that this Court should review de novo the district court's decision to issue the search warrant, with no deference to the issuing judge's decision. This proposed standard of review is inconsistent with the rule established by our supreme court in State v. Koen, 152 P.3d 1148 (Alaska 2007), so we reject Hart's contention.

         Hart also claims that the superior court erred when it denied his challenge to the search warrant. For the reasons explained in this opinion, we conclude that the evidence presented to the magistrate who issued the warrant satisfied the Aguilar/Spinelli test. In particular, we hold that the magistrate could reasonably rely on statements that two drug dealers made to a reliable police informant when the drug dealers were not aware that the person they were speaking to was a police informant, and that their statements would be provided to the police.

         The proper standard of review

         As we just noted, Hart argues that this Court should review the sufficiency of the warrant application in this case with no deference to the decision of the judge who issued the warrant. Hart asserts that, because he does not contest the assertions of fact supporting the warrant application, the sole remaining issue - whether those facts support a finding of probable cause - is a question of law that should be reviewed de novo, giving no deference to the decision of the issuing judge.

         Hart is correct that, ultimately, an appellate court exercises independent review in assessing whether a warrant is supported by probable cause. But the Alaska Supreme Court has directed us to give "great deference" to the magistrate's decision to issue a warrant. Here is how the supreme court explained the standard of review in State v. Koen:

Questions concerning the existence of probable cause ultimately present issues of law, which we review independently. But when such questions involve a magistrate's decision to issue a warrant, we begin by recognizing that magistrates have broad latitude to draw reasonable inferences from the evidence placed before them. Accordingly, we give "great deference" to the magistrate's discretion and resolve marginal cases in keeping with the traditional preference accorded to warrants. Our inquiry focuses on whether the magistrate had a substantial basis to conclude that probable cause to search existed. In applying this standard, we must read the affidavit submitted in support of the search warrant "in a commonsense and realistic fashion, " considering the affidavit "in its entirety" instead of dissecting it into isolated "bits and pieces of information."

Koen, 152 P.3d at 1151 (internal citations omitted).

         Accordingly, this is the standard that we apply.

         The warrant was ...


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