Alaska News

Rural Alaska alcohol runners face stiff penalties

Weeks after two hub cities in rural Alaska voted to remove bans on local liquor sales, the state is launching a campaign warning bootleggers they face big fines and mandatory jail time if caught.

Even if they're only smuggling one bottle. Even if it's their first offense.

The effort is about spreading word of tough penalties the Legislature enacted in 2008 rather than reacting to recent votes to lift liquor prohibitions in Bethel and Kotzebue, said Assistant Attorney General Robin Koutchak. Some rural leaders have told prosecutors they were caught unaware of the strict new rules.

"They wished that the state had made more of an effort to notify people that if you were busted for bootlegging, even one bottle, that you would be going to jail," she said.

Koutchak estimates at least 300 people have been convicted under the new bootlegging penalties, which were part of an omnibus crime bill that also included stiffer punishment for sex offenders and child pornography offenses. It became law in July last year.

Kirsten Bey is an assistant public defender in Nome, where her office sees about five illegal alcohol importation cases a month, she said.

"People aren't aware of the mandatory jail, or the mandatory fines," she said.

The new rules make the penalty for the most basic bootlegging cases -- trying to smuggle a few bottles into a dry community -- as serious as a drunken driving charge. They include:

• Three days in jail and a $1,500 fine for first-time offenders

• Twenty days in jail and a $3,000 fine for a second offense.

• Sixty days in jail and $4,000 for a third offense. Unless all three convictions are within the last 15 years -- then the crime is pumped up from a misdemeanor to a felony and a minimum $10,000 fine.

A few years ago, a first-time offender caught trying to sneak a few bottles probably wouldn't have seen any jail time, while the fines ranged from a couple hundred dollars to a couple thousand, Koutchak said.

Offenders have also lost the ability to scrub the conviction from their criminal records with good behavior.

The state sent posters to Bethel last week showing bottles of hard liquor and warning how much first-time smugglers have to pay if convicted. "This fine takes food from your table, gas from your snowmachine, heating oil from your home, clothes and diapers from your kids," it says.

The placard lists phone numbers people can call to report bootleggers and warns a conviction will take smugglers away from family and community for days. "Is bootlegging worth the shame and consequences?" it asks.

More posters and pamphlets are in the works, Koutchak said, and will likely be distributed in Kotzebue, Nome and Barrow. The plan is for state troopers to take them to surrounding villages.

An Anchorage printer donated the first round of posters, Koutchak said. The whole campaign, which currently does not include radio or TV ads, could cost as little as $1,000, she said.

But the state should have publicized the stricter punishments sooner, including broadcasting the new rules in Alaska Native languages over the radio, said Wilson Justin, a member of the Alaska Native Justice Center.

Justin also was a member of a joint state-federal Rural Justice Commission created in 2004. The group linked rural violence and crime to the importation of alcohol, he said.

He still supports last year's crime bill, but worries that severe penalties for relatively minor bootlegging charges could strike at people acting as mules for professional bootleggers.

"You have a law that's got very good points, but you don't want this law to put more people in jail that are really in need of rehab and treatment," he said.

The new state law also creates a mandatory $10,000 fine for anyone convicted of a felony for selling alcohol in a community that bans the sale or possession of alcohol.

"We've recognized that people who are doing this earn money, and some are earning big money," Koutchak said.

On Oct. 6, Bethel voters removed a ban on local alcohol sales, though no one can get a liquor license there without approval from the state and a group of residents is organizing to oppose bars and liquor stores. In Kotzebue, where alcohol sales were also illegal, voters approved plans for a liquor distribution center and city-operated alcohol sales.

With the ban lifted in Bethel -- which serves as the hub for dry villages -- the state no longer restricts how much residents there can order per month. People caught illegally selling liquor in the city are also now more likely to face a misdemeanor, rather than a felony charge, Koutchak said.

Bey, the Nome public defender, said it's great that Alaska communities can each decide whether to ban alcohol. The problem is, they don't have a say in how strict the punishment is for breaking the ban.

"I've had people in the villages saying I don't want people to have alcohol, but I also don't want them all to be criminals," she said.

Read The Village, the ADN's blog about rural Alaska, at Twitter updates: Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.


Kyle Hopkins

Kyle Hopkins is special projects editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He was the lead reporter on the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lawless" project and is part of an ongoing collaboration between the ADN and ProPublica's Local Reporting Network. He joined the ADN in 2004 and was also an editor and investigative reporter at KTUU-TV. Email