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Pulusila v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

May 18, 2018

FALEALO MANUELE PULUSILA, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF ALASKA, Appellee.

         Appeal from the Superior Court, Third Judicial District, Trial Court Anchorage, No. 3AN-13-5018 CR Paul E. Olson, Judge.

          Callie Patton Kim, Assistant Public Defender, and Quinlan Steiner, Public Defender, Anchorage, for the Appellant.

          Patricia L. Haines, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

          Before: Mannheimer, Chief Judge, Allard, Judge, and Suddock, Superior Court Judge. [*]

          OPINION

          MANNHEIMER JUDGE

         In September 2016, Falealo Manuele Pulusila was on felony probation, and his driver's license was suspended. Pulusila borrowed another man's truck. The Anchorage police contacted Pulusila; one thing led to another; and the police searched the truck.

         Inside the front console, the police found a small explosive device. Underneath a pile of clothes in the back seat, they found ammunition for a firearm. And inside a backpack in the back seat, they found a methamphetamine pipe.

         One of Pulusila's conditions of probation prohibited him from having any ammunition or explosives in his "custody, residence, or vehicle". Another of Pulusila's conditions of probation prohibited him from having any drug paraphernalia in his "residence or ... any vehicle under [his] control". Based on the discovery of the explosive device, the ammunition, and the meth pipe in the truck that Pulusila was driving, the State petitioned the superior court to revoke Pulusila's probation.

         Pulusila contested the State's petition. He pointed out that the truck was borrowed, and he asserted that he was unaware that the truck contained the explosive device, the ammunition, and the meth pipe.

         The superior court did not resolve the question of whether these items belonged to Pulusila, or whether Pulusila was even aware that the truck contained these items. Instead, the superior court ruled that it did not make any difference whether Pulusila knew that these items were in the truck.

         More specifically, the superior court ruled that Pulusila's probation could lawfully be revoked if the State proved (1) that Pulusila was aware of the two probation conditions that prohibited him from having these items, and (2) that the prohibited items were present in a vehicle that was under Pulusila's control, even if Pulusila did not know about them.

         According to the court, it was no defense that Pulusila was unaware that the prohibited items were in the vehicle. If the law were otherwise, the superior court declared, this would "give free rein" to anyone on probation to say, "It's not my car", or, if the car was rented, "[Those items were] left in there by [a] previous renter."

         Based on this ruling, the superior court revoked Pulusila's probation and imposed all of Pulusila's remaining suspended jail time.

         Pulusila now appeals the superior court's decision.

         Pulusila's first argument is that, contrary to the superior court's ruling, his two probation conditions did not make him strictly liable for any prohibited items that might be found in his residence or vehicle. Pulusila contends that his probation conditions prohibited him from knowingly possessing ammunition, explosives, or drug paraphernalia.

         Pulusila next argues that if his probation conditions did, in fact, make him strictly liable for any prohibited items found in the borrowed truck, then those probation conditions violated the constitutional guarantee of due process of law.

         The State responds that Pulusila's probation conditions did, indeed, impose strict liability for any prohibited items found in the borrowed truck. The State contends that even if Pulusila had no reason to know that the truck contained these prohibited items, Pulusila nevertheless had a duty to make sure, before he borrowed the truck, that the vehicle did not contain any items that he was prohibited from having.

         The State further contends that this kind of strict liability is lawful. More specifically, the State argues that, under Alaska law, a court can properly revoke a defendant's probation even when it is clear that the defendant was not at fault and did not act with any culpable mental state. According to the State, the defendant's lack of fault is a matter that a court should consider at the disposition hearing (i.e., at sentencing) - after the court has found that the defendant violated their probation.

         We will address these contentions in reverse order. We will first discuss the State's claim that Alaska law allows a court to hold a defendant strictly liable for any violation of probation, regardless of the defendant's lack of fault. As we explain in this opinion, the State's argument is partially correct. There are circumstances when a court can revoke a defendant's probation for a violation of probation that was not the defendant's fault. But there is no universal rule that a defendant's lack of fault is irrelevant.

         Rather, under Alaska law, a court can revoke a defendant's probation when the defendant's violation of probation supports the conclusion that the aims of probation are not being met, and that the defendant's continued release on probation would be at odds with the goals of protecting society and fostering the defendant's rehabilitation. When a court makes this determination, the defendant's fault (or lack of fault) may sometimes have little relevance - but conversely, the defendant's fault or lack of fault may sometimes be a crucial factor in the court's decision.

         We will then address the question of how to interpret Pulusila's conditions of probation, given our construction of Alaska probation law. As we explain in this opinion, we agree with Pulusila that his conditions of probation only prohibited him from knowingly possessing the ammunition, explosives, and drug paraphernalia. And because of this, the superior court was required to resolve the contested issue of whether Pulusila was aware that these prohibited items were present in the vehicle.

         The question of whether a defendant's probation may be revoked even when the defendant bears no fault for their failure to abide by the conditions of probation

         As we just explained, the State takes the position that a defendant's probation can be revoked even when the defendant's action (or the defendant's failure to act) was not accompanied by any culpable mental state - in other words, even when the failure to abide by the conditions of probation was not the defendant's fault. The State bases this argument on our supreme court's decision in Trumbly v. State, 515 P.2d 707 (Alaska 1973).

         (a) The Alaska Supreme Court's decision in Trumbly

         In Trumbly, the State petitioned the sentencing court to revoke a defendant's probation because the defendant failed to promptly report to his probation officer upon his release from prison. In fact, Trumbly left Alaska without obtaining his probation officer's permission. [1]

         Trumbly defended by asserting that he was mentally ill, that his mental disease or defect "deprived him of the substantial capacity to conform his conduct to the conditions of [his] probation", and that he therefore should not be held accountable for his ...


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