Feds drop charges for alleged coronavirus quarantine violation

The Anchorage federal courthouse (Alaska Public Media)

Federal prosecutors are dropping their charges against an Anchorage convict they had accused of breaking a coronavirus quarantine.

Duane Fields, 48, is the only person known to have been criminally prosecuted in the state for violating coronavirus quarantine rules. He had been charged with contempt of court for allegedly violating a court order as part of his conditions of release to quarantine for two weeks at an Anchorage hotel.

“The charges that were dropped are charges that never should have been filed,” said Cynthia Franklin, Fields’ attorney. “The government had no evidence that Mr. Fields had committed contempt of court. And it was so painfully obvious.”

Fields had been serving time for a 2012 cocaine dealing conviction, but a judge shortened his sentence earlier this year because of Fields’ struggle with cancer and the risk of picking up the coronavirus in prison. He was released from Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution in California and put on a plane back to Alaska in early May.

According to the now-dropped charges, Fields was supposed to quarantine for two weeks at an Anchorage hotel. But Fields had paperwork, which he showed to Alaska Public Media, saying he was supposed to report to his mother’s house. He said he was confused about where he was supposed to go.

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Fields’ parole officer discovered he was not at the hotel when someone from the prison called to inform him that Fields had tested positive for COVID-19 the day before he flew back to Alaska. The parole officer discovered that Fields was at his mother’s house, told him about the positive test and said he had to return to the hotel.

Federal prosecutors filed felony contempt of court charges against Fields, alleging he had broken a court order to quarantine at the hotel, as well as a separate charge of violating his conditions of release. They are now dropping both.

In a Thursday court filing dropping the contempt charges, the prosecutors admitted Fields had not been told where to quarantine. They blame his court-appointed attorney in the drug case for not informing him of a change to Fields’ release plan that said he should quarantine at the hotel, not at his mother’s house, as he had originally requested.

Asked for comment, a spokeswoman for the Alaska U.S. Attorney’s Office sent a written statement.

“The basis for the government’s motion to dismiss is that, through testimony and written submission, the Federal Public Defender’s Office did not provide Fields a copy of the District Court’s order or even notice of its contents, to self-quarantine,” the statement says. “This is concerning given the urgency to self-quarantine during a pandemic.”

Franklin, Fields’ attorney in the more recent case, said notices of conditions of release are usually mailed directly to an inmate.

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“And the mail can take anywhere from one to four weeks, sometimes even five or six weeks, to reach an inmate,” Franklin said. “They’re at the complete mercy of the Bureau of Prisons personnel, and whether or not they get their mail at all. So there was no chance Mr. Fields was going to receive a May 6 order in the mail before he boarded a plane May 8 back to Alaska.”

Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.

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