Alaska’s highest court has ruled that a former Prince of Wales Island police officer prosecuted for PFD fraud can continue working in law enforcement.
Klawock police sergeant Valent Maxwell was stripped of his police certificate for “lacking moral character” after he expressed no remorse for twice applying for dividend checks despite taking two separate police jobs in Montana.
His out-of-state stints were brief. He resigned the first job after less than a month and returned to the Klawock Police Department. A year later he was hired as as police chief in Ronan, Montana but was fired less than two months later.
After filing for PFDs in 2013 and 2014 despite his out-of-state work, Maxwell was indicted on felony charges in 2015.
He was acquitted in a bench trial. But the Alaska Police Standards Council — the professional board that licenses sworn officers — revoked his certificate allowing him to work as a cop. He appealed in Superior Court, which overturned the council’s decision.
Ketchikan attorney Michael Heiser says both the lower and higher courts found little evidence of his client’s criminal intent. He says the police standards council failed to make its case at every level. “And I’d like to think that they will look at this opinion and how the court ruled and why it reached the decision that it did,” Heiser told CoastAlaska.
As the case played out, there was tension between the 13-member police standards council and the courts over the evidence standard to prove a police officer lacks moral character.
“And that’s one of those areas where I guess everybody has to agree to disagree,” Bob Griffiths, executive director of the Alaska Police Standards Council, said in an interview. “The council felt very strongly they did have that evidence. ”
He added: “I would say that the precedent that was set is that the council is going to have to do a better job of articulating that and writing in the future.”
Throughout the proceedings, the former police officer made statements that showed he had little grasp he’d broken the law.
And that played in his favor. In the state Supreme Court’s 3-2 opinion, the majority repeated an administrative law judge’s observation that the former police sergeant was “not a sharp operator” and the state failed to prove criminal intent.
“While his failure to understand the law governing his conduct is disturbing and perhaps a reason to find him unsuited for police work, it is not the same as dishonesty or disrespect for the law,” the majority wrote in its 23-page opinion released on June 12.
Justices Craig Stowers and Peter Maassen dissented.
Stowers wrote that the two justices were troubled that “ignorance of the law or a mistaken belief about what the law provides is an excuse for violating the law.” He added that the majority’s ruling “also creates bad policy and threatens to undermine the public’s respect for the courts and police officers.” That’s because, he wrote, it effectively “incentivizes willful ignorance” of the law.