SHOE SHOPLIFTING, UNION ORGANIZING, AND A TANGLED CONSTITUTIONAL CASE
A former assistant attorney general who was convicted for using her position as the legal adviser to the Alaska Labor Relations Agency to benefit a close friend, landlord and union organizer, has had her conviction overturned because Troopers seized her computer and wrongly searched it for evidence. The Alaska Court of Appeals has ruled that even though the evidence was there, they had no reasonable cause to believe it would be, so it was a wrongful search and seizure.
The Troopers found plenty of evidence to get a conviction of Erin Pohland.
But because Pohland lived in a portion of a home owned by her friend, Skye McRoberts, Pohland argued that her rooms were equivalent to a separate living space, and could not be searched while Troopers went about establishing that McRoberts had been forging signatures for a union drive involving Alaska’s largest union — Alaska State Employees Association.
McRoberts in 2010 was charged with forging the signatures and altering documents in other ways in an effort to unionize some 1,500 University of Alaska employees who were not part of ASEA.
McRoberts submitted employee “interest” cards to the Alaska Labor Relations Agency. These cards were said to represent the interest of various University of Alaska employees in becoming members of the union. Under Alaska law, at least 30 percent of a proposed bargaining unit must express interest in becoming unionized.
Based on the sharp eye of an agency employee, the Labor Relations Agency came to suspect that a number of these interest cards might have been forged, so the agency asked Pohland for advice.
Pohland, however, was not only renting from McRoberts, but the two were also partners in crime. They were both accused of stealing shoes from Fred Meyer in a December caper, when they removed the electronic theft tags off of shoes and attempted to leave the store with about $1,000 worth of unpaid merchandise. They were charged with misdemeanors.
When the Labor Relations Agency was reaching out to Pohland for advice on McRoberts in 2010, little did they know she was consulting on the matter with McRoberts.
In its charges against Pohland, the State alleged she failed to tell the Agency that she and McRoberts were close and that she lived in an apartment within McRoberts’s home. The two spoke about McRoberts’s unionizing efforts regularly, and she had even assisted McRoberts in her role as a union organizer
The state was taking advice, in other words, from someone who was colluding with the accused party.
By March of 2011, Alaska State Troopers had obtained a warrant to search McRoberts’s house for evidence that she and her husband, Donavahn McRoberts, had committed forgery and falsification of business records relating to the forged cards.
The search warrant allowed troopers to search the house for any kind of documents that could support the case against the McRoberts.
At this time, Troopers were already aware of the conflict of interest that Pohland had with Skye McRoberts and the Labor Relations Agency. They knew the agency had sought advice from Pohland on the forgery situation, and they knew the advice Pohland gave the agency was suspect.
The search warrant affidavit spelled it out: Pohland’s advice to the Labor Relations Agency “did not follow the guidelines for forged Interest Cards laid out in a National Labor Relations Manual”.
The warrant also noted that Pohland “failed to advise [the Agency] to contact law enforcement to investigate the matter”, and that she failed to tell the Labor Relations Agency that she was good friends with McRoberts and that McRoberts was her landlord.
The search warrant issued by the district court said troopers could seize and search any computer or electronic storage media “capable of concealing documents related to the business and finances associated with Donavahn McRoberts or Skye McRoberts.”
But later, the Troopers and prosecutor assigned to the case acknowledged that at the time of the search, they didn’t have probable cause to believe Pohland was complicit in McRoberts’s crimes.
The question during appeals was whether Pohland’s computer was in the McRoberts’ residence or in what could truly be considered a separate apartment. The suite of rooms had their own bathroom, kitchen and laundry facility, but not a separate entryway.
Troopers searched the suites and seized a laptop that belonged to Pohland. On it, they found numerous text messages between Pohland and Skye McRoberts, discussing McRoberts’ effort to unionize university workers.
The text messages became part of the State’s case against Pohland when she was later charged with official misconduct for the advice that she gave to the Labor Relations Agency.
The appeals court overturned the district court’s conviction because the search warrant application did not establish probable cause to seize and search Pohland’s laptop computer.
“For these reasons, we conclude that the search of Pohland’s laptop computer violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article I, Section 14 of the Alaska Constitution. The evidence against Pohland obtained as a result of that search must be suppressed,” according to the Appeals Court decision.
Pohland, who is no longer working for the State of Alaska and has been disbarred here, has since left the state. She is now a freelance legal researcher and writer in Pittsburgh.
In 2013, Skye McRoberts was convicted of forgery in the second degree in Anchorage and sentenced to spend three years on felony probation and to pay $25,248.10 in restitution to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development and $9,094.10 to the University of Alaska.