Lawsuit challenges Alaska civil seizures, search warrants

PETERSBURG — A lawsuit filed against a drug task force in southeast Alaska challenges the seizure of personal property by law enforcement and seeks more transparency in the search warrant process.

Petersburg Borough residents Danny Thompson and Greg Richeson are suing the borough and Southeast Alaska Cities Against Drugs, a task force involving Alaska State Troopers and police departments across the region, KFSK-FM reported Monday.

The men allege authorities entered their homes during separate investigations in 2013 and seized computers, guns, electronics and other personal items. They claim the items were not returned for years, although the investigations did not result in any criminal charges.

The lawsuit seeks to change Alaska court rules that keep search warrants sealed for four years if no criminal case is filed to allow people who have had their property seized to view the records.

“The police take the stuff away and they keep it for years and so the target of the warrant is punished,” said Fred Triem, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “The target of the warrant suffers a punishment because of the fine that’s imposed by the police in the form of the deprivation of their property and the loss of the use of their property.”

Triem has also filed a motion seeking class-action status for the lawsuit to include additional plaintiffs and expand the number of defendants to include local, regional and state law enforcement agencies.

Thompson and Richeson claim Alaska’s court rules regarding search warrants violate the state’s constitution. They are seeking full disclosure of court files in all search warrants.

Police are required to give the owner of property seized a copy of the court-ordered search warrant, the supporting affidavit for obtaining the warrant and a receipt for the property taken. Officers are also required to make an inventory of property seized.

However, under state court rules, someone who has had their property seized must get a judge’s approval to obtain those documents, which are not part of the public record for several years if there are no charges filed in the case.

Borough Attorney Timothy Bowman said in an email that the lawsuit does not have merit.

“Property is seized and held as evidence all over the country every hour of every day in conjunction with legitimate criminal investigations like these,” Bowman wrote. “The plaintiffs’ actual grievance is simply that they do not like the well-established law governing the warrant process.”

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