The alleged sexual assault of a 16-year-old girl on a state ferry last year that was thrown out of court on a technicality has led to swift action by lawmakers in the Capitol.
The attack allegedly occurred on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry Matanuska traveling from Bellingham, Wash., to Ketchikan, while the vessel was in Canadian waters.
Vernon Jack, 29, of Boise, Idaho, was indicted by a grand jury on two counts of felony sexual assault and four counts of misdemeanor assault.
But a Superior Court judge threw out the case in July when Jack's lawyers argued the state did not have jurisdiction to prosecute because the ferry was not in U.S. waters. The state is appealing the ruling.
A bill by Anchorage Republican Rep. Ken Meyer aims to close the loophole by extending the state's power to prosecute any crimes committed on state-owned vessels - whether in state waters or not.
Meyer told the Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday that the federal government could take on the case but generally does not prosecute offenses such as sexual assault.
"And the Canadian government has little interest in pursuing this because it is a state-owned ferry and an Alaskan victim," Meyer said.
He said the case has set a precedent that others who have committed crimes on ferries are using to avoid prosecution.
In December an intoxicated passenger on a state ferry traveling in Canadian waters from Prince Rupert, B.C., to Ketchikan attacked two crew members with a vodka bottle, causing minor injuries, Meyer said.
The passenger filed a motion to dismiss the case based on the dismissal of the sexual assault case, Meyer said.
Sen. Jerry Ward, an Anchorage Republican, asked if passing a law to extend the state's jurisdiction would strengthen Jack's argument that there is no legal grounds for prosecution.
Assistant Attorney General Annie Carpeneti said passing the law would make it explicitly known that the state does have jurisdiction in case of such attacks.
But Ketchikan Assistant District Attorney Dan Schally, who argued the original case, said passing such a law could damage the state's chances at a successful appeal.
Though passing a bill would essentially prove the state had no prior jurisdiction, Schally said briefings have already been submitted to the state Court of Appeals.
"I don't know that Mr. Jack's appellate attorney could make that argument," Schally said. "The briefing has already been done and the argument has already been made."
If the state Court of Appeals agrees with the Superior Court ruling, the case could then go to the state Supreme Court, Schally said. Also, a U.S. attorney in Anchorage is considering arguing the case at a federal level, he said.
Schally said court opinions might not be the only obstacle to prosecuting the case.
Jacks was recently extradited to Idaho on a different felony offense, Schally said.
Sen. Robin Taylor, a Wrangell Republican, asked why the bill only covers watercraft and not other state-owned vehicles, such as airplanes.
"I think we have a fleet right now in the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Fish and Game alone of somewhere between 46 and 52 different aircraft, and that doesn't include eight or 10 helicopters," Taylor said.
Carpeneti said most of the state's aircraft operate within the state. Meyer noted the federal government is more likely to get involved in a case where an assault occurred on an airplane.
The bill, which passed unanimously last month in the House, was approved by the Transportation Committee.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at email@example.com.
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