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Bill expands warrantless arrests to misdemeanors

Posted: March 29, 2011 - 8:42pm

JUNEAU — Alaska police officers would be allowed to make warrantless arrests for some misdemeanors under a proposed law in the state Legislature.

Bill sponsor Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, said the bill would strengthen law enforcement’s ability to arrest people on the spot for misdemeanors committed against a person.

Assistant Juneau Police Chief Page Decker said these crimes include misdemeanor assault, stalking and indecent exposure, among others.

Unless an officer witnesses a misdemeanor crime as it is occurring, Decker said an officer must get a witness to authorize a citizen’s arrest of a person.

In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, which is considering the bill, Juneau police Lt. Kris Sell said police sometimes have to release a person accused of a misdemeanor if they don’t have a warrant for their arrest.

Sell told the committee of one instance in which a person accused of misdemeanor assault on a Juneau street was released because witnesses were too afraid of retaliation to sign a citizen’s arrest form for the suspect.

“I’m asking you to let the police ... protect citizens and to do so immediately after a citizen is attacked,” Sell said.

The law has exceptions for misdemeanors related to domestic violence, violations of protective orders or conditions of release from prison.

Quinlen Steiner, direct of the Alaska Public Defender Agency, said he was worried that expanding warrantless arrests could put people in jail for minor crimes that fall within the category of a misdemeanor against a person.

For instance, a person who drives too fast on an icy day and runs a stop sign could be arrested for misdemeanor reckless endangerment, Steiner said.

“In essence what this does is bypass any review of the arrest decision,” Steiner said.

Rep. Lindsey Holmes, an Anchorage Democrat and committee member, said she was also concerned that hearsay could be used to authorize a warrantless arrest.

She has proposed an amendment that would limit the warrantless arrests only in cases in which a suspect poses imminent harm to the public.

“No police officer wants to be in a position of being sued for wrongful arrest,” Holmes said. “We want to protect public from violent people, but we also want to protect them from wrongful arrest.”

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