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State v. Akins

Supreme Court of Idaho

August 6, 2018

STATE OF IDAHO, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
LAURA LOUISE AKINS, Defendant-Respondent.

          Appeal from the District Court of the First Judicial District of the State of Idaho, Kootenai County. Honorable Richard S. Christensen, District Judge.

         The decision of the district court is affirmed.

          Honorable Lawrence G. Wasden, Idaho Attorney General, Boise, for appellant. Kenneth K. Jorgensen argued.

          Eric D. Fredericksen, State Appellate Public Defender, Boise, for respondent. Jenny C. Swinford argued.

          BRODY, JUSTICE.

         The State appeals from the dismissal of a charge against the defendant for her failure to notify of a death pursuant to Idaho Code section 19-4301A. The statute imposes a duty on persons who find or have custody of a body to promptly notify authorities. It also prescribes the punishment for failure to comply with that duty, including felony punishment for failing to notify with intent to prevent discovery of the manner of death. The question presented on appeal is whether the defendant's prosecution under this statute would violate her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. We hold that it would based on the unique set of facts of this case and affirm the district court's decision to dismiss the charge.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In November 2015, Kimberly Vezina's body was found wrapped in a tarp and a shower curtain in Lake Coeur d'Alene. Law enforcement's investigation revealed that Laura Akins was suspected of disposing the body after Vezina died of a drug overdose. The investigation established that on the morning of October 15, 2015, Vezina was found deceased in a bathroom of a house in Spokane Valley, Washington. At the time, Akins was living in the house with a collection of other occupants. The residence had been raided earlier that month and was known by local law enforcement as a place where significant drug use and distribution occurred. During the course of the investigation, multiple persons relayed suspicion that Vezina was the victim of an intentional overdose caused or ordered by a former resident.

         Following the discovery of Vezina's death, one of the other residents directed Akins and another person who had been at the house, Lacy Drake, to dispose of the body at a lake house owned by Akins's relatives in Coeur d'Alene. This decision reflected that Akins and Drake had less extensive criminal records than the other occupants of the house. That evening, Akins and Drake were provided with a "burner" SUV in which the wrapped body had been placed in the rear cargo area. After briefly stopping at the lake house, Akins and Drake drove to a nearby public boat launch, unloaded the body, carried it to the dock, and dumped it into the water with an attached bag of cement. Three weeks later, the body was discovered by two fishermen who initially noticed the tarp on the surface of the lake and thereafter notified authorities. A subsequent coroner's examination confirmed that Vezina had died of combined drug toxicity.

         The State charged Akins with one count of failure to notify of a death (I.C. § 19-4301A(3)) and one count of destruction of evidence (I.C. § 18-2603). As to the first count, the State specifically alleged

[t]hat the defendant, Laura Louise Akins, on or about the 15th day of October, 2015, in the County of Kootenai, State of Idaho, having had custody of the body of Kimberly Sue Vezina, a human being who died, failed to notify or delayed notification to law enforcement or coroner of said death where the death would be subject to the coroner's investigation, with the intent to prevent discovery of the manner of death[.]

         Akins moved to dismiss this count, contending that her prosecution under section 19-4301A violated her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Following a hearing on the motion, the district court issued a memorandum decision dismissing the count. The district court later entered a written order, from which the State now appeals.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "This Court applies an abuse of discretion standard when it reviews a trial court's decision on a motion to dismiss." State v. Eversole, 160 Idaho 239, 244, 371 P.3d 293, 298 (2016) (citing State v. Card, 137 Idaho 182, 184, 45 P.3d 838, 840 (2002)). To determine if a trial court abused its discretion, this Court considers whether the trial court perceived the issue as one of discretion, acted within the outer boundaries of that discretion, acted consistently with the applicable legal standards, and reached its decision by an exercise of reason. Id. (citing State v. Joy, 155 Idaho 1, 6, 304 P.3d 276, 281 (2013)). Akins's motion raised a constitutional challenge. "Constitutional issues are purely questions of law over which this Court exercises free review." State v. Baeza, 161 Idaho 38, 40, 383 P.3d 1208, 1210 (2016) (quoting Morgan v. New Sweden Irrigation Dist., 160 Idaho 47, 51, 368 P.3d 990, 994 (2016)).

         III. ANALYSIS

         This appeal presents a question of first impression for this Court. The issue underlying Akins's motion was whether enforcement of section 19-4301A against her would be constitutionally permissible in light of her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that "[n]o person . . . shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself." U.S. Const. amend. V. The privilege against compulsory self-incrimination has been incorporated against the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. Malloy v. Hogan, 378 U.S. 1, 6 (1964); see also Idaho Const. art. I, § 13. In its application, the privilege "protects against any disclosures which the witness reasonably believes could be used in a criminal prosecution or could lead to other evidence that might be so used." Kastigar v. United States, 406 U.S. 441, 445 (1972) (citing Hoffman v. United States, 341 U.S. 479 (1951); Blau v. United States, 340 U.S. 159 (1950); Mason v. United States, 244 U.S. 362 (1917)). "This provision of the Amendment must be accorded liberal construction in favor of the right it was intended to secure." Hoffman, 341 U.S. at 486.

         Section 19-4301A is found amongst the criminal procedure statutes regarding coroner inquests. See I.C. ยงยง 19-4301 to 19-4310. The statute imposes a duty on persons who find or have custody of a body to promptly notify the coroner or appropriate law ...


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