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Idaho Supreme Court Rules Dead-Body Reporting Statute Unconstitutional As Applied to Defendant

by Richard Resch

The Supreme Court of Idaho held that prosecution of the defendant under a state statute that imposes a duty on anyone who discovers or has custody of a body to promptly notify authorities, based on the facts of this case, would violate the defendant’s Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. As such, the Court affirmed the district court’s decision to dismiss the charge.

In late 2015, Kimberly Vezina died of an overdose at a residence well known for drug activity. Laura Akins and another person were ordered to dispose of the body at a lake house owned by Akins’ relative. Akins eventually dumped the body in the water, but it was discovered by fishermen about three weeks later. Investigators determined that Akins was involved with dumping the body and placed her under arrest.

Akins was charged under I.C. § 19-4301A(3), failure to notify of a death. She moved for dismissal, arguing that her prosecution under the statute violated her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. Following a hearing, the district court agreed with her, reasoning that compliance with the statute under these facts would effectively punish her for failing to incriminate herself. The court entered an order dismissing the charge. The State appealed. Noting that the case presented an issue of first impression, the Idaho Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal.

The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that no person “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” The privilege against compulsory self-incrimination has been incorporated against the states via the Fourteenth Amendment. Malloy v. Hogan, 378 U.S. 1 (1964).

Idaho Code § 19-4301A imposes a duty on anyone who finds or has custody of a body to promptly notify the proper authorities. Failure to do so “with intent to prevent discovery of the manner of death” constitutes a felony punishable by up to ten years in prison and a fine up to $50,000 under Subsection (3) of the statute.”

The issue before the Supreme Court was whether compliance with the reporting obligation imposed by the statute would have forced Akins to provide potentially self-incriminating information in contravention of her Fifth Amendment rights. The Court concluded that it would.

The State argued that the statute does not compel Akins to provide testimonial evidence because it does not require her to provide any personally identifying information in connection with her reporting obligation. Since the statute does not compel testimonial evidence, the privilege against self-incrimination is not implicated, the State reasoned.

The Court rejected the State’s position. It cited a large body of case law that holds “statutory language requiring the reporting of personally identifying information is not essential for testimonial evidence to be compelled” because compliance could nevertheless “threaten the defendant with a hazard of self-incrimination.” The reasoning and conclusion articulated in the referenced case law similarly apply to the statute in question, the Court concluded.  

The Court then turned its attention to “whether there existed a hazard of self-incrimination” had Akins complied with the statute in question. In answering this general question, the U.S. Supreme Court considers two factors: (1) whether the statute targets a highly selective group inherently suspect of criminal activities or the public at large, and (2) whether the statute is surrounded by criminal provisions or part of a noncriminal regulatory scheme. Albertson v. Subversive Activities Control Board, 382 U.S. 70 (1965). A finding for the latter under either factor tends to favor a determination for the existence of a hazard of self-incrimination.

The Idaho Supreme Court determined that the “plain language makes clear that section 19-4301A broadly applies to any person,” so it applies to the general public. As such, the first Albertson factor favors a finding against a hazard of self-incrimination.

However, the second factor conclusively supports the opposite determination. The Court explained that “the plain text” of the statute “dictates that the reported information must reach law enforcement.” Additionally, a review of the legislative history of the statute reveals that the purpose of the statute is the imposition of criminal sanctions, not merely a regulatory measure.

The Court opined that “we find it difficult to invent a more substantial hazard of self-incrimination than the one that was actually presented here.” Thus, the Court ruled that “the statute as applied to Akins violates her Fifth Amendment privilege.” It is important to note that the Court expressly stated that it is not ruling that section 19-4301A is facially unconstitutional, only that it is unconstitutional as applied to Akins under the facts of this case.  

Accordingly, the Idaho Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the district court to dismiss the charge against Akins. See: State v. Akins, 2018 Ida. LEXIS 159 (2018).     

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