Victor v. State, A-13246

CourtCourt of Appeals of Alaska
Writing for the CourtMANNHEIMER JUDGE
PartiesMARTIN DENNIS VICTOR IV, Petitioner, v. STATE OF ALASKA, Respondent.
Docket NumberA-13246
Decision Date12 August 2022

MARTIN DENNIS VICTOR IV, Petitioner,
v.

STATE OF ALASKA, Respondent.

No. A-13246

Court of Appeals of Alaska

August 12, 2022


Petition tor Review from the Superior Court, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Michael L. Wolverton, Judge. Trial Court No. 3AN-15-03304 CR

Renee McFarland, Assistant Public Defender, and Samantha Cherot, Public Defender, Anchorage, for the Petitioner.

Nancy R. Simel, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Criminal Appeals, Anchorage, and Clyde "Ed" Sniff en Jr., Acting Attorney General, Juneau, for the Respondent.

Before: Harbison, Judge, Mannheimer, Senior Judge, [*] and Suddock, Senior Superior Court Judge.

OPINION

MANNHEIMER JUDGE

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This case requires us to interpret the provisions of Alaska law that govern situations where a criminal defendant is found to be incompetent to participate in their trial or their sentencing, and the defendant's incompetency persists so long that the court is required to dismiss the criminal charges under AS 12.47.110(b).

AS 12.47.110(b) declares that, in these situations, the dismissal of the criminal charges is "without prejudice"-that is, without detriment to, or derogation of, the State's right to re-initiate and pursue those charges. The question presented in this case is whether, even though AS 12.47.110(b) declares that the dismissal of the charges is without prejudice, the State is nevertheless barred from re-initiating the criminal charges unless the superior court first finds that the defendant has become competent to stand trial.

As a general matter, it is of course true that renewed litigation of the previously dismissed charges cannot go forward if the defendant remains incompetent to stand trial. This follows directly from AS 12.47.100(a) - the statute which declares that when a mentally ill criminal defendant lacks the capacity to understand the proceedings against them or to assist in their own defense, the defendant cannot be tried, found guilty, or sentenced.

But in the present case, the superior court never ruled that the defendant could be prosecuted even if he remained incompetent to stand trial. Rather, the ruling at issue in this case is the superior court's procedural decision regarding how the State can ask a trial court to re-initiate the litigation of the previously dismissed charges.

The defendant in this case, Martin Dennis Victor IV, takes the position that the State should be barred from re-initiating the previously dismissed charges until after the superior court affirmatively finds that the defendant is competent to stand trial. In the proceedings below, the superior court rejected this argument: The court ruled that the State could file a pleading to re-initiate the previously dismissed charges, and then

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the parties could litigate the issue of whether Victor was competent to be tried and sentenced, or whether he remained incompetent to stand trial.

In this appeal, Victor contends that the superior court's ruling is inconsistent with the Alaska statutes governing the treatment of mentally ill defendants who are found to be incompetent to stand trial. Victor argues that, in cases like his, the State should not be allowed to re-initiate the previously dismissed charges until (1) the State offers new "legally obtained, credible evidence [that] the defendant's competence to stand trial has been restored", and then, based on this new evidence, (2) the superior court affirmatively finds that the defendant is competent to stand trial.

In other words, the issue presented here is a procedural one: Must the government procure a preliminary ruling from the superior court that the defendant is competent to stand trial before the government is allowed to file a pleading that re-initiates the previously dismissed charges? Or, as the superior court ruled in Victor's case, is the State allowed to re-initiate the charges and then the parties can litigate the issue of the defendant's competency to stand trial?

For the reasons explained in this opinion, we conclude that the superior court's resolution of this procedural issue was correct: The re-initiation of the charges - i. e., the State's re-invocation of the superior court's jurisdiction over the case-must precede any renewed litigation on the question of the defendant's competency or lack of competency to stand trial.

Victor's briefing of this issue does, however, raise a different but related problem: Because the pertinent Alaska statutes do not explicitly place limitations on the State's ability to re-initiate the previously dismissed charges, there is a possibility that the State could harass a mentally ill defendant by repeatedly litigating the same dismissed charges - each time subjecting the defendant to judicial process, to potential pre-trial

3

incarceration, to renewed psychiatric evaluations, and (at the very least) to the anxiety of facing criminal proceedings again.

Because of this possibility, at least one court (the Washington Court of Appeals) allows defendants in this situation to challenge the government's decision to re-initiate the criminal charges, requiring the government to show that there is a reasonable basis for believing either that the defendant has become competent to stand trial or that the defendant could be rendered competent through the regimen of treatment authorized under the pertinent statutes. See State v. Carneh, 203 P.3d 1073, 1076-77 (Wash. App. 2009).

Under Carneh, the question is whether there is a reasonable basis for the government's decision to re-initiate the charges - some good reason to believe that the defendant has become competent to stand trial, or that the defendant could be rendered competent to stand trial through authorized treatment. Thus, Carneh does not require the government to offer convincing proof (at this point) that the defendant is competent to stand trial. Rather, the government need only convince the trial court that there is good reason to re-open the proceedings and re-assess the defendant's competency to stand trial.

As we explain in this opinion, we conclude that we need not decide whether to adopt such a procedural rule in Alaska - because, even assuming that the State is required to offer the trial court a reasonable basis for asking the court to re-examine the question of the defendant's competency to stand trial, the State satisfied that burden in Victor's case.

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Underlying facts, and an overview of the pertinent statutes

(a) Victor's indictment, and the superior court's initial finding that Victor was not competent to stand trial

Under Alaska law-specifically, AS 12.47.100(a)-criminal defendants who are unable to understand the proceedings against them, or who are unable to assist in their own defense, cannot be tried, convicted (i.e., found guilty), or sentenced.

If a court determines that a defendant is incompetent on either or both of the two grounds set forth in AS 12.47.100(a), the defendant cannot be brought to trial. If the defendant's trial has already begun, the trial cannot continue; or if the defendant has already been found guilty and is awaiting sentencing, the sentencing cannot go forward. Rather, the court must stay the criminal proceedings. If (as in Victor's case) the defendant is charged with a felony, the court must commit the defendant to the custody of the Department of Health and Social Services to see whether the defendant's competency can be restored through mental health treatment. AS 12.47.110.

(In the discussion that follows, for simplicity's sake, we will refer to a defendant's competency to "stand trial" rather than repeatedly using the more exact but lengthier description, "competency to stand trial or be found guilty or be sentenced".)

The defendant in this case, Martin Dennis Victor IV, was charged with stabbing and attempting to kill his parents. More specifically, in April 2015, a grand jury indicted Victor on two counts of attempted first-degree murder and two counts of first-degree assault.

Early in the proceedings, the court acknowledged that Victor might not be competent to stand trial - and, pursuant to AS 12.47.100(b), the court ordered that Victor be evaluated by a mental health professional.

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Under the terms of AS 12.47.100(c), even after a court has concluded that there is reason to question the defendant's competency to stand trial and the court has ordered a psychiatric evaluation under AS 12.47.100(b), the law still presumes that the defendant is competent. Under this presumption, a defendant is deemed competent to stand trial unless and until the court affirmatively finds, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defendant is not competent.

In Victor's case, after the superior court received the results of Victor's psychiatric evaluation and assessed Victor's competency under the provisions of AS 12.47.100(b) - (h), the court found that Victor was not competent to stand trial. Accordingly, as mandated by AS 12.47.110(a), the court committed Victor to the custody of the Department of Health and Social Services for treatment, to see if Victor could be restored to competency within the time limits set forth in AS 12.47.110(b).

(b) The subsequent proceedings under AS 12.47.110(b) relating to Victor's lack of competency to stand trial

In 1972, in Jackson v. Indiana, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to confine a criminal defendant for an indefinite period of time "solely on account of [the defendant's] incompetency to stand trial".[1] The Supreme Court declared that when a defendant is held in custody solely because they lack the competency to stand trial, this period of confinement cannot exceed "the reasonable period of time necessary to determine whether there is a substantial probability that [the defendant] will attain competency in the foreseeable future."[2] And if the criminal court concludes that there is no...

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