District Ct. May Compel Discovery of Laser Gun Specs

State v. Lo (HSC Oct. 30, 2007)

Background. The defendant, Jack Miller, was cited for excessive speeding in violation of HRS § 291C-105(a)(1) for allegedly driving 76 mph in a 35-mph zone. The police measured the speed of Miller's car with a laser gun. Pursuant to HRPP Rule 16, Miller sought particular items relating to the laser gun: the manufacturer's operation and maintenance manuals; certification documents; police maintenance records; manufacture and acquisition dates; warranty documents; laser readings; firearm qualification test results for the officer who cited Miller; fixed distance used to calibrate the laser gun and the location where the calibration took place; and “delta distance” used to calibrate the laser gun and location. The State refused to disclose, and Miller filed a motion to compel their discovery on the grounds that these items were discoverable when the conviction is based solely on the laser gun reading. The district court ordered the disclosure of only the laser unit calibration distance and calibration distances, but denied everything else. The State filed a petition to the HSC for writ of mandamus requesting a vacation of the district court's order.

Standard of Review. The HSC has original jurisdiction over a writ of mandamus. The writ is an extraordinary one appropriate only when necessary “to confine an inferior tribunal to the lawful exercise of its jurisdiction.” Moreover, the mandamus is not a substitution for an appeal, and the HSC must determine at the outset whether a mandamus petitioner may have a remedy by way of appeal or any other means of relief from the trial court's action. However, even in the absence of appellate remedy, the writ will not be granted—even if there was error—unless the judge exceeded his or her jurisdiction; committed a “flagrant and manifest abuse of discretion;” or refused to act where it was legally obligated to act.

State's Request for a Writ of Mandamus is Improper. HRS § 641-13 authorizes ten circumstances when the prosecution may bring an appeal. The State is not authorized to appeal this discovery order and thus its only available remedy would be a writ of mandamus.

When it comes to compelling a party to disclose material in a criminal case, the trial court is required to do so in felony cases, has some discretion in misdemeanors, and is prohibited from doing so in violations. HRPP Rule 16. For misdemeanors, the district court (and only the district court as they hear all misdemeanors) is afforded this discretion “[u]pon a showing of materiality and if the request is reasonable[.]” Finally, the only those items described in HRPP Rule 16(b) are discoverable.

The State argued that the laser gun calibration distances and locales were beyond the scope of discovery, and thus the judge acted beyond its scope of his authority. The HSC disagreed because information on calibration distances and locations for the laser gun used by the officer is material to challenging the accuracy of the particular laser gun used to determine Miller's speed. Failing to prove Miller's speed could lead to an acquittal of the charged offense or even a conviction of a speeding violation. Therefore, the district court judge did not exceed his authority in granting in part Miller's motion to compel.

Mandamus: a two-step process? The standard of review for a Writ of Mandamus is tricky. It appears that if the order or decision by the “inferior tribunal” (this includes agencies) is not appealable, then the HSC goes on to determine whether the writ is warranted. Of course, if the parties could appeal from the decision, it would seem that there is no original jurisdiction, and the HSC should deny and wait for the issue to come up on appeal. If there is no appellate remedy, then the HSC moves on to the question of whether the “extraordinary” writ of mandamus is appropriate (i. e. the lower court exceeded its authority).

On the merits of this case, the HSC held that district court judge did not exceed their authority in compelling the disclosure of evidence pertaining to calibration and location for speeding prosecutions. This is largely due to the fact that the laser gun is the only way to determine the defendant's speed. At its broadest, one can read this case to indicate that the district court judge does not exceed its authority when compelling the disclosure of the specific mechanics and workings of an instrument used to prove an essential fact or element in a prosecution. This may include those items that were denied by the district court below as well as the specs and calibration for radar guns or even specs about the police vehicle used to “pace” the allegedly speeding defendant.

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