Alaska courts can prosecute alleged crimes on the Alaska Marine Highway even when the crimes alleged are off the coast of Canada, the state Supreme Court ruled last week.
"It's important that there be a rule of law on state ferries," Assistant Attorney General W.H. Hawley said Monday from his Anchorage office. He argued the state's position before the Alaska Supreme Court.
The 2001 Ketchikan sexual assault case arose from actions alleged to have been committed against a woman on the state ferry Matanuska on May 12, 2001. The vessel was northbound from Bellingham, Wash., in Canadian territorial waters where Vernon G. Jack V allegedly sexually assaulted her. An Alaska State Trooper was on board and investigated the incident, and a grand jury in Ketchikan indicted Jack on charges of first- and second-degree sexual assault, as well as four misdemeanor counts of fourth-degree assault, according to the Alaska Supreme Court ruling released Friday.
Juneau Superior Court Judge Larry Weeks dismissed the 2001 indictment after Jack's attorney argued the court lacked jurisdiction. The Alaska Court of Appeals agreed with Weeks, and state prosecutors petitioned the state's highest court to hear the case.
Ketchikan District Attorney Stephen West was unavailable to say whether his office would prosecute Jack, now 34, on the 2001 charges.
Juneau District Attorney Patrick Gullufsen said he had not yet read the decision but called the issue important as the state deals with crimes committed on the high seas.
"It's a ruling we have been waiting on," he said.
Alaska State Trooper spokesman Greg Wilkinson said he had no data on how much crime is reported on Alaska's ferry system, but said a law passed in 2002 specifically gives troopers jurisdiction aboard any state-owned boat or aircraft.
That law grew out of the Jack case, said Margi Mock, an assistant public defender in Anchorage, who argued before the state high court on Jack's behalf. She disagreed with state attorneys, saying that because of the new law, she doesn't see effects from the Jack decision reaching beyond Jack's case.
While Jack's attorneys argued that pre-2002 state law extended state jurisdiction "to water offshore from the coast of the state," the Supreme Court ruled that "offshore" means more than coastal waters. The decision states Alaska's coastline faces in all directions, including the route of the Alaska Marine Highway in question in Jack's case.
The ruling cited two reasons to find Alaska jurisdiction in the case. A law dating to Alaska's first Legislature in 1959, which grants offshore jurisdiction to Alaska in cases where the United States has jurisdiction. Under international maritime doctrine, Canada is not authorized to assert jurisdiction over coastal vessels unless the consequences of the alleged crime extend to Canada.
Additionally, Alaska felt the effects of the alleged crime, the decision added. It discussed a case in which Florida prosecuted a case where a sex crime was allegedly attempted against a minor 100 miles from Florida aboard a cruise ship that set out from and returned to the state, to ensure the protection of people traveling to or from Florida by sea. It also noted that leaving passengers unprotected against crimes could significantly affect Florida's tourist industry.
In recent years, Juneau prosecutors have brought charges and won convictions against people accused of crimes on foreign-flagged cruise ships in Southeast Alaska waters.
Tony Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.