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Alaska Supreme Court Denies Counsel to State Prisoner in Felony Case

by Derek Gilna

In a decision that appears to contradict U.S. Supreme Court precedent, not to mention its own, the Supreme Court of Alaska ruled on September 14, 2018 that a prisoner charged with violation of a prison disciplinary rule that constitutes a felony was not entitled to counsel, at least under the facts in this case.

According to the Court’s opinion, state prisoner David Simmons “was charged with an infraction in a prison disciplinary hearing for refusing to provide [a DNA] sample and found guilty.”

He appealed that guilty finding to the superior court, which affirmed; he then appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, which termed the failure to appoint counsel a “secondary issue.” Nonetheless, the Court devoted the majority of its decision to the unusual denial of legal representation.

“We have explained that the right to counsel under the Alaska Constitution for inmates charged with major disciplinary proceedings constituting a felony stems from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Miranda v. Arizona and Mathis v. United States,” the Court wrote. “In Miranda, the Court held that persons facing custodial interrogation must be informed of their right to remain silent and, if indigent, must be provided a lawyer if requested.

“We [have] held under the Alaska Constitution that these self-incrimination concerns necessitated that inmates charged with conduct constituting a felony in a major disciplinary proceeding must be provided a lawyer.... In this case, however, counsel would not have made any difference. There was only one material fact in issue: did Simmons refuse to provide a DNA sample as required by law? Simmons did not dispute this fact, and he could not have denied it as a practical matter because he in fact refused to provide a DNA sample and to this day continues to assert that the State has no legal right to require him to provide a DNA sample,” the Supreme Court continued. “There being no disputed material facts at issue, his arguments were purely legal, and as explained above, none of his legal arguments have merit.”

The Court added, “we are unable to conclude that the Department’s unconstitutional failure to provide Simmons with an attorney prejudiced his right to a fair adjudication. So though it is undisputed the Department violated Simmons’s constitutional right to counsel – which we strongly condemn – we must affirm the superior court because the violation did not prejudice Simmons.” See: Simmons v. State of Alaska Department of Corrections, 426 P.3d 1011 (Alaska 2018), rehearing denied. 

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Related legal case

Simmons v. State of Alaska Department of Corrections