ANCHORAGE, — The Alaska Court of Appeals issued a ruling Friday that gives former state Rep. Nick Stepovich a partial victory in his cocaine conviction case.
The court upheld Stepovich’s 2009 drug possession conviction but found that there was not sufficient evidence to support Stepovich’s conviction for attempted evidence tampering.
That conviction stemmed from Stepovich dropping a piece of paper that tested positive for cocaine behind a large trash bin in an alley behind a Fairbanks bar when approached by a police officer in 2008.
Stepovich is the son of former territorial Gov. Mike Stepovich and served in the Alaska House of Representative in 2003 and 2004. He was convicted of cocaine possession and attempted tampering with evidence and sentenced to 352 hours of community service. He also was fined $3,500 and placed on probation for 18 months.
Stepovich appealed his convictions based on the assertion that police did not have reasonable suspicion that he was engaged in criminal activity, and therefore any evidence collected was unlawful.
The appeals court found that Fairbanks police Officer Kurt Lockwood acted properly in stopping Stepovich from leaving the scene after observing him and another man in the alley behind the Big I Bar on Nov. 8, 2008. According to police, the two men were standing close together with their heads bent toward the other and their hands cupped. The men were staring intently toward their hands, police said.
Once spotted by Lockwood, the men looked panicked, quickly stepped apart and put their hands in their pockets, court documents said. Lockwood told both men to stop but Stepovich kept walking and circled around the back of the trash bin with his hands in his pockets. When he came into view again, his hands were in plain view, the officer said. Stepovich told Lockwood that he was urinating behind the trash bin.
When Lockwood looked to where Stepovich had been, he found a paper slip of cocaine lying on top of the fresh snow. A search of Stepovich’s pockets turned up $865 in cash and a small plastic jar full of gold nuggets worth between $8,000 and $9,000. A drug-sniffing dog indicated that the gold nuggets and money had been in the proximity of drugs.
The appeals court found that the officer had a sufficient basis to suspect he was witnessing a drug transaction, especially given that the two were spotted in an alley behind a bar at 1 a.m., the manner in which they were standing and their panicked expressions when discovered.
But the court said Stepovich’s action of stepping behind the trash bin and dropping the slip of cocaine did not make it impossible or substantially more difficult for police to find it.