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Pohland v. State

Court of Appeals of Alaska

February 1, 2019

ERIN A. POHLAND, Appellant,

          Date of Order: January 30, 2019

          Appeal from the District Court No. 3AN-12-1066 C R, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Jo-Ann Chung, Judge.

          Cynthia L. Strout, Anchorage, for the Appellant.

          Michal Stryszak, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for the Appellee.

          Before: Mannheimer, Chief Judge, and Allard and Wollenberg, Judges.


          MANNHEIMER Judge.

         Erin A Pohland, a former assistant attorney general, appeals her conviction for official misconduct, AS 11.56.850(a). The State alleged that Pohland used her position as legal advisor to the Alaska Labor Relations Agency to benefit her personal friend, Skye McRoberts.

         Much of the evidence against Pohland was based on information obtained during a search of her personal computer. This computer was seized when the state troopers executed a search warrant for Skye McRoberts's house - where Pohland was renting an apartment. The troopers were looking for evidence of McRoberts 's potential business and financial crimes, but they seized Pohland's computer under the theory that McRoberts might have hidden evidence of her crimes in any computer or electronic storage device located within the house - even Pohland's personal laptop, which was found in Pohland's apartment.

         Pohland contends that the search of her computer violated her rights under the Fourth Amendment and under the corresponding provision of the Alaska Constitution (Article I, Section 14). We agree with Pohland that the search of her computer was unlawful. Even when the police have a warrant to search a house, a personal computer must be treated differently from other objects or containers in the house. As the United States Supreme Court explained in Riley v. California, [1]a police search of this kind of personal digital device "[will] typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a [person's] house", because the device "not only contains in digital form many sensitive records previously found in the home", but also "a broad array of private information never found in a home in any form".[2]

         As we explain in this opinion, the troopers did not have probable cause to believe that Pohland's personal laptop computer contained evidence of her landlord's financial and business crimes. Moreover, rather than confining their search to documents and spreadsheets (i.e., computer files that were more likely to contain evidence of financial and business crimes), the troopers obtained much of the evidence against Pohland by combing through thousands of Pohland's personal text messages. (Pohland was using her laptop computer as a backup device for the data stored on her smart phone.)

         For these reasons, we reverse Pohland's conviction.

         Underlying facts

         Pohland and Skye McRoberts were close friends, and Pohland lived in an apartment (i.e., a suite of rooms) within McRoberts's house.

         Pohland was also an assistant attorney general who advised the Alaska Labor Relations Agency - the agency within the executive branch that dealt with labor union matters.

         Pohland's friend McRoberts worked as a union organizer for the Alaska State Employees Association. The State Employees Association was engaged in an effort to unionize the employees of the University of Alaska. In connection with this effort, McRoberts submitted employee "interest" cards to the Labor Relations Agency - cards purporting to express the interest of various University employees in becoming members of the union. (Under Alaska law, at least 30 percent of a proposed bargaining unit must express interest in becoming unionized.[3])

         The Labor Relations Agency came to suspect that a number of these interest cards might have been forged, so the Agency contacted Pohland for advice. Based on the advice that Pohland gave to the Labor Relations Agency, Pohland was charged with official misconduct.

         Specifically, the State alleged that Pohland failed to tell the Agency that she was close friends with McRoberts, that she lived in an apartment within McRoberts's home, that she had regularly discussed the unionization effort with McRoberts, and that she had assisted McRoberts in this effort. The State further alleged that Pohland's advice to the Labor Relations Agency was designed to shield her friend McRoberts from any official investigation into the possibility that McRoberts had forged, or had colluded in forging, the employee interest cards.

         The seizure and search of Pohland's computer, and the litigation of the suppression motion in the trial court

         In March 2011, the Alaska State Troopers obtained a warrant to search McRoberts's house for evidence that she and her husband, Donavahn McRoberts, had committed forgery and falsification of business records relating to the forged interest cards. More specifically, the search warrant authorized the troopers to search the house for various kinds of documents "related to the business and finances" of McRoberts and her husband, as well as documents related to the solicitation of potential union members from the University of Alaska.

         When the troopers applied for this search warrant, they knew that Pohland was good friends with McRoberts, they knew that the Labor Relations Agency had sought advice from Pohland regarding the forged interest cards, and they knew that there were reasons to question the competence of Pohland's advice to the Labor Relations Agency.

         In particular, the search warrant affidavit recited that Pohland's advice to the Labor Relations Agency "did not follow the guidelines for forged Interest Cards laid out in a National Labor Relations Manual". The search warrant affidavit also asserted that Pohland "failed to advise [the Agency] to contact law enforcement to investigate the matter", and that Pohland failed to tell the Labor Relations Agency that she was good friends with McRoberts and that McRoberts was her landlord.

         However, both the troopers and the prosecutor assigned to the case later conceded that, when the troopers applied for the warrant, they did not have probable cause to believe that Pohland was complicit in McRoberts's crimes.

         The search warrant issued by the district court contained a provision authorizing the troopers to seize and search any computer or electronic storage media "capable of concealing documents related to the business and finances associated with Donavahn McRoberts or Skye McRoberts."

         During the troopers' ensuing search of McRoberts's house, the troopers identified Pohland's separate apartment within the house. This area of the house did not have separate egress to the street, but it was a suite of rooms comprising a bedroom, a separate kitchen, a separate bathroom, and a clothes washer and dryer.

         While the troopers were searching Pohland's apartment, they seized a laptop computer. At the time, the troopers conducting the search presumed that the laptop belonged to Pohland. A subsequent examination of the laptop's hard drive confirmed this assumption. The laptop contained numerous documents belonging to Pohland, as well as thousands of text messages between Pohland and various people (backup copies of texts from Pohland's mobile phone).

         Many of these text messages were exchanged between Pohland and McRoberts, and some of these text messages appeared to discuss the campaign to unionize the university workers. These text messages became part of the State's case against Pohland when she was later charged with ...

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