In October, Stephen Hansell will be receiving his Permanent Fund dividend for the first time in years.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy on Friday forgave a legal debt that has been hanging over the 26-year-old Anchorage man’s head for more than a decade, ever since the courts ordered him to pay legal fees stemming from an attack he suffered as a child. The state has been garnishing his dividend since 2014 to pay toward the debt.
“This is really one of the first steps to closure I’ve gotten in a long time, and I’m just overwhelmed with joy, bewilderment — I can’t explain it," Hansell said.
Hansell was 8 years old on May 7, 2001, when a man wielding a knife came onto the campus of Mountain View Elementary School and slashed his face from scalp to neck, a cut that damaged a facial nerve and required multiple surgeries. Three other boys were also injured in the attack.
The following year, Hansell’s parents filed suit against a number of parties they felt were responsible for allowing their son to be injured, including the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, which had treated the attacker for his religious delusions and thoughts of harming children before the attack.
In 2005, after the Hansells lost their case, the court ordered them to pay attorneys’ fees totaling more than $24,000. Stephen, who had been named as a plaintiff even though he was 9 when the lawsuit was filed, was also on the hook for the bill.
In 2014, the state began garnishing his dividend, as well as his parents’, to pay toward the debt. Hansell said he was never told about the lawsuit and didn’t know why his dividend was being taken until he was contacted in March by a reporter.
As of October 2016, the most recent date on which a full ledger of their balance was filed in court, the Hansells still owed more than $19,000 to the state. Attorney General Kevin Clarkson, who spoke with Gov. Dunleavy at the governor’s office Friday, said he didn’t know the total amount of the debt to date.
Hansell said shortly after an ADN article was published about his garnishment, he reached out to the governor’s office on Facebook asking if anything could be done about the debt. By then, his story had already caught the attention of both the governor and the attorney general.
The next day, the Department of Law filed a satisfaction of judgment in Hansell’s case — meaning, according to Clarkson, he will no longer be obligated to pay those fees.
“Like many Alaskans, when we saw the recent news story involving Stephen and the subsequent lawsuit, we thought it just didn’t make sense,” Dunleavy told reporters Friday. “It sounded wrong that the state was garnishing the Permanent Fund dividend from an individual who was 8 years old when this incident happened and therefore really didn’t have a say in the lawsuit that was filed.”
Stephen’s father, Dwayne Hansell, will still be liable for his portion of the debt, Clarkson said. Stephen’s mother died in 2016.
Clarkson also said his department will be looking into the possibility of reimbursement for the amount Hansell has already paid toward the debt.
However, the state law that allowed the garnishment to happen is unlikely to change, he said.
The rule, dating back to before statehood, allows the prevailing party in a civil lawsuit to recoup partial attorneys’ fees from the losing party in most cases. That’s different from most of the Lower 48, where in general, the prevailing parties can only ask for attorneys’ fees in certain kinds of cases.
“If it were to be changed, it would take the Alaska Supreme Court to change it,” Clarkson said.
For Hansell, though, being relieved of the debt represents an opportunity to finally close old wounds.
“It’s still healing, especially now with everything going on and everything being brought back to the front of everything," he said. "Now I can actually move on. I don’t have to worry about too much, at least for right now.”