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Alaska Supreme Court Decision Saves Millions of Dollars in Potential Liability to State Retirement System
Alaska Attorney General Talis Colberg reported today that the Alaska Supreme Court issued a decision late last week that will save the state from paying millions of dollars of unanticipated cost-of-living-allowance (COLA) payments to state retirees living outside Alaska. In 2003 three participants in the retirement systems filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of a class of approximately 10,000 nonresident retirees alleging that class members were entitled to receive a ten-percent COLA under the TRS/PERS retirement systems.

The plaintiffs argued that allowing resident retirees to claim the COLA violated their right to equal protection by penalizing non-resident retirees for living out-of-state and thus infringing on their right to travel. The lead plaintiff in the case had retired to Hawaii. He argued that because Hawaii had a higher cost of living than Alaska, he had the same right to COLA payments from Alaska’s retirement system as a retiree who lived in Alaska.

The Alaska Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs’ claims. The Court found that the state had a legitimate interest in encouraging retirees to stay in the state. Specifically, the Court found that the state had a legitimate interest in providing PERS and TRS COLA payments to encourage retired state employees to remain in the state and that providing these payments does not substantially infringe upon the rights of retirees who choose to live elsewhere. The plaintiffs had also claimed that they were entitled to receive back payments that would have multiplied the state’s financial liability had the court ruled in their favor on this issue. “If the non-resident plaintiffs had prevailed the resulting cost in implementing such an outcome would have created an additional, unplanned burden to our state’s retirement system,” said Colberg.

The new marijuana laws created by House Bill 149, which will soon be signed by Governor Murkowski, will immediately affect those who possess four ounces or more, but will make no immediate change in police authority regarding personal possession of under four ounces by adults in homes. Under the new laws, possession of four ounces or more becomes a class C felony. The new laws also allow an easier method to determine the weight of marijuana contained in growing plants, without having to dry and process the marijuana. These new laws can be put into place as soon as they take effect. Most importantly, HB 149 contains several findings by the Legislature about problems caused by today’s potent Alaska marijuana.

These legislative findings prove marijuana is not harmless, and we believe they will convince the Alaska Supreme Court that marijuana has changed dramatically since the landmark 1975 decision in Ravin v. State. But press reports are somewhat misleading in saying that the new laws “re-criminalize” possession of smaller amounts of marijuana by adults in private.

That’s not entirely accurate. The new laws do not alter the decisions by the Alaska appellate courts that noncommercial possession of small amounts by adults in homes is constitutionally protected (Ravin v. State, 1975), that the amount of marijuana covered by Ravin is up to four ounces (Noy v. State, 2003), and that search warrants to investigate marijuana growing require probable cause that the cultivation was for commercial purposes or that there is more than four ounces on the premises (Crocker v. State, 2004). The state will vigorously litigate all these legal issues because it’s important that the courts overrule these prior decisions. The Legislature’s findings about marijuana set the stage for that to happen, but they don’t do it automatically.

We live under the rule of law, and full implementation of the marijuana laws is ultimately up to the courts. Therefore, for the time being, and until you are advised differently by the District Attorney in your region, there is no basis for changing law enforcement policies for investigation of nonpublic possession of less than four ounces of marijuana by adults.

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