Class action lawsuit seeks justice for arrested Alaskans held for more than 48 hours
The Northern Justice Project has filed a class action lawsuit against the Alaska Department of Corrections on behalf of Alaskans who have been taken into custody and not put in front of a judge within 48 hours of the arrest.
“This has actually been an issue for years now in the Second Judicial District, which covers Nome and some of the outlying communities, and we’ve been concerned about it,” said Nicholas Feronti, an attorney with the Northern Justice Project.
Feronti and his colleagues recently got their chance to address the issue in a lawsuit when they learned of a case involving a man who was arrested in Savoonga. Tadd Vandyke was arrested on Aug. 26. Three days later, when Vandyke remained in detention in Savoonga and still had not seen a judge, the lawsuit was filed. Vandyke is listed as a plaintiff. He represents “all people who were arrested without a warrant and who are currently detained, or who will be detained in the future, by DOC without a judicial determination of probable cause within 48 hours.”
As Savoonga has no jail, Feronti said that Vandyke was held in a community building where he had to sleep on a mat surrounded by bed bug powder and wasn’t allowed to shower, “all while his constitutional rights were being violated.”
“In the United States, dating back to when guys wore funny wigs, we’ve had this basic process where you’re supposed to get before a judge, and we trust the judge to make a decision about whether you can stay in jail,” Feronti said. “That’s fundamental to what our society is built on. If we’re messing this basic thing up, gosh, I get worried about what else we’re messing up.”
Citing the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the lawsuit states that a person arrested without a warrant should be released from custody within 48 unless a “judicial determination of probable cause” justifies extending their pretrial detention. According to the lawsuit, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that any delay in this timeline could only be justified by “the existence of a bona fide emergency or other extraordinary circumstance.”
Each state additionally has its own guidelines for procedures around when an arrested person should appear before a judicial officer. The lawsuit alleges that the DOC violated the plaintiff’s rights under the Alaska Constitution “by failing to release them after failing to ensure a prompt judicial determination of probable cause.”
Ideally, once someone is in state custody, the state should initiate contact with the prosecutors about potential charges, Feronti said, “but the clock is ticking.”
In Vandyke’s case, that clock started ticking as soon as he was remanded in Savoonga.
Feronti said he wasn’t sure where the breakdown in this system was occurring. He added that the lawsuit was in no way intended to pick on Savoonga and he understands that Western Alaska often faces issues with travel and communication systems.
“We’re here because the Department of Corrections for the state of Alaska—which has a bigger budget than [the University of Alaska school system]—they should be able to do this, whether it’s in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Savoonga, Juneau and everywhere in between,” Feronti said.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction “requiring the DOC to ensure that all Alaskans who are arrested without a warrant are not incarcerated for longer than 48 hours without a judicial determination of probably cause, absent a bona fide emergency or extraordinary circumstance.”
Betsy Holley, a public information officer for the Alaska Department of Corrections, said the department has yet to be served and could not comment on the lawsuit at this time.
The issue could stem from a policy of the Nome Court, which will not hold initial hearings before a charge has been filed.
In 2020, Judge Romano DiBenedetto wrote a memo to the district attorney’s office and the DOC in response to concerns about arrested persons remaining in custody for more than 48 hours.
“[T]he court does not acquire jurisdiction over anything until a charging document is filed,” DiBenedetto wrote, adding that reliance on Alaska Statute 12.25.150 was “misplaced.” This statute holds that the initial hearing before the judge or magistrate should not take place more than 48 hours after arrest. DiBenedetto went on to explain his interpretation of that statute.
“[T]he purpose of bringing a prisoner before a judicial officer within 48 hours after an arrest is for determination of probable cause for a filed charge and for an arraignment if probable cause is found,” he wrote. DiBenedetto added that presenting an arrested person before a judge within 48 hours was not intended to be a “safety valve” to ensure the person isn’t being held improperly. Instead, a lawsuit against the DOC or a writ of habeas corpus, or both, would be the mechanisms to prevent someone from being held illegally, he wrote.
“Accordingly, the Clerk’s office will not be taking on the responsibility of monitoring the jail for the people being unlawfully detained,” the judge wrote. “Therefore, clerks will not be in communication with [Anvil Mountain Correctional Center] when charging documents are not received for remanded persons. Finally, judicial officers will not be calling random individuals to a hearing of any sort unless there is a case on file, whether it is a charging document, habeas petition or lawsuit.”
Robert Colvin, the area court administrator for the Second Judicial District, said that he was unaware of any case where a complaint was successfully filed and the Nome Court did not have the defendant arraigned within 24 hours.
“The court even has staff and judicial officers available on weekends and holidays to ensure cases are heard in a timely manner,” Colvin said in an email to the Nugget. “I cannot speak to delays in getting the initial complaints to the courthouse. The reasons for a delay in this area fall outside my knowledge and are beyond the court’s control. Since these delays are beyond our control we have no mechanism in place to track them.”