Kentucky Appeals Court Says AG Has Limited Jurisdiction

Jun 8, 2012

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The Kentucky Attorney General's office has limited powers to initiate criminal investigations and overstepped its bounds in helping bring a drug conviction in eastern Kentucky, which has been reversed, the state Court of Appeals ruled Friday.

Judge Glenn Acree, writing for the court, found that the official is limited to offering advice in most probes and has limited prosecutorial abilities.

"Criminal investigation is not among them," Acree wrote.

Acree, joined by judges Denise Clayton and Donna Dixon, also found that an opinion by the attorney general's office spells out a specific request in writing is needed to intervene in an investigation.

Attorney General Jack Conway spokeswoman Allison Gardner Martin described the decision as "disappointing" and said the Kentucky Supreme Court will be asked to review the ruling.

The impact on Operation UNITE, a federally funded anti-drug task force that generally operates in 29 eastern Kentucky counties, wasn't immediately clear.

Its president and CEO, Karen Kelly, said the organization's attorney was reviewing the decision.

"We do enjoy a close working relationship with General Conway, not just with law enforcement, but we also work on education issues with him as well," Kelly said.

Since starting operation in 2003, Operation UNITE has arrested 3,588 and attained a conviction rate of 96.7 percent, which includes guilty pleas by defendants.

The ruling reverses the conviction of 37-year-old Ronnie Johnson of Powell County, who is serving 10 years in state prison. The case was brought by Operation UNITE, which worked under the authority of the attorney general in making the arrest.

In that case, an Operation UNITE detective and investigators from the AG's office brought multiple drug charges against Johnson, who contested the office's jurisdiction to handle the case, but lost at the trial court level.

Johnson said because Detective Randy Cline of Operation Unite in Prestonsburg was the only witness in the case and he worked under the AG's authority, none of the evidence accumulated in the case was valid.

Johnson entered a conditional guilty plea and reserved the right to appeal the ruling on the attorney general's involvement. The trial court sentenced Johnson to 10 years in prison.

The attorney office argued that, under common law and the statutes, the office had the jurisdiction to investigate criminal cases without being called in by local authorities.

Acree found that the law allows the attorney general's office to intervene in and direct investigations in "limited situations specified by local officials" once a request has been made in writing by local officials. Because there was no request made in Johnson's case, the office lacked the authority to take part in the probe, Acree wrote.