Wednesday, September 16, 2009

District Court Abused Discretion in Limiting Criminal Defendant's Evidence at Trial.

State v. Inman (ICA September 15, 2009)

Background. Inman was charged with several counts of violating an injunction against harassment (HRS § 604-10.5). An injunction was imposed against Inman. He was not permitted to contact or threaten Klein. The charges allege that Inman made various phone calls, glared, lunged, and made an obscene gesture at Klein. Inman failed to timely file a witness list and moved the district court for leave to file a witness list. Inman proffered three witnesses: Gifford, his fiancĂ© who would testify that he was at another place when one of the incidents took place, Parks, who would testify that she never saw Inman lunge at Klein, and Padamada, who would testify that he never saw Inman drive by and make the obscene gesture.

Over the State's objection, the district court ruled that Gifford, as an alibi witness, would allowed to testify, and that Parks and Padamada would be allowed to testify only if Inman submitted a witness list including their names, addresses, phone numbers, and birth dates. Inman submitted a list, but did not include Padamada's birth date and phone number. The State argued that because Inman failed to strictly comply, all three witnesses should be excluded from testifying. The district court ruled that Parks and Padamada could not testify and that Gifford could only testify about a particular incident and not others. After a bench trial, Inman was found guilty of all but one count.

Discovery Sanctions Based on Four Factors. In misdemeanor prosecutions, the trial court has the discretion to require discovery provided in Hawai'i Rules of Penal Procedure Rule 16. HRPP Rule 16(d). According to the ICA, the district court's preclusion of Inman's witnesses was a discovery sanction for its failure to comply with the pretrial conference order. "[T]he imposition of sanctions should not encroach on a fair trial. In particular, the exclusion of defense evidence in criminal cases as a means of sanction is a drastic measure for the right of a defendant to adduce evidence in his [or her] behalf is one of the fundamental inherent in the due process guarantee of a fair trial." State v. Ahlo, 79 Hawai'i 385, 399, 903 P.2d 690, 704 (App. 1995). In fashioning discovery sanctions under HRPP Rule 16, the trial court must consider these factors: (1) whether the defendant acted maliciously or in bad faith; (2) the extent of prejudice to the prosecution caused by the violation; (3) whether the prejudice could have been cured by less severe measures than the exclusion of evidence; and (4) any other relevant circumstances. Id. at 400, 903 P.2d at 705.

District Court Abused Discretion in Imposing Severe Discovery Sanctions on Defendant. The ICA held that the district court abused its discretion in precluding testimony of Parks and Padamada. The sanctions were based on Inman's failure to include Padamada's birth date. According to the ICA, there was no evidence that Inman acted maliciously or in bad faith and, "more importantly," there is no evidence that the State suffered any prejudice.

Other Available Sanctions. The ICA noted that there were other appropriate sanctions available to the district court. "Willful violation by counsel of an applicable discovery rule or an order" allowed the district court to order money payments, refer the attorney to disciplinary action, or use its contempt power. HRPP Rule 16(e)(9)(ii); State v. Fukusaku, 85 Hawai'i 462, 492, 946 P.2d 32, 62 (1997); State v. Dowsett, 10 Haw. App. 491, 499-500, 878 P.2d 739, 743-44 (1994).

Not Harmless Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. According to the ICA, evidence of Inman's guilt was "not overwhelming" and there was "conflicting evidence" at trial. The testimonies of Parks and Padamada certainly could have changed the outcome of Iman's trial. And so, the errors were not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. State v. Vinuya, 96 Hawai'i 472, 481, 32 P.3d 116, 125 (App. 2001).

Sanction Powers v. Defendant's Right to Present Evidence. In this case, and in Ahlo, the ICA reviewed the discretion of the trial court and looked to four factors in determining if there was an abuse of discretion. There seemed to be little deference here. Would the same analysis apply if the State has violated discovery orders? Maybe. The Ahlo factors are not unique to violations by the defendant. They could just as easily apply to the State. Did the State act in bad faith? Did the Defendant suffer prejudice? Are there less severe sanctions available? What are the other circumstances? And besides, if there was a different analysis, what would it look like?

On the other hand, both this case and Ahlo emphasize the due process guarantee of a fair trial. A person's right to present evidence in his or her defense should not be easily curtailed with discovery violations. That may call for a less-stringent application of the factors when the State violates discovery rules and orders. In other words, there should be more deference to the trial court's exclusion of State's evidence. The due process concerns in such a case are out of the equation when the State violates a discovery rule or court order.

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