Statutory Interpretation is Plain as day.

State v. Mainaaupo & State v. Lopez (HSC March 5, 2008)

Background. Both Mainaaupo and Lopez were charged with unauthorized control of a propelled vehicle (UCPV) (HRS § 708-836). Both went to a jury trial. Both Lopez and Mainaaupo asserted the mistake-of-fact defense (HRS § 702-218) on the grounds that both believed that the person who authorized their use of the vehicle was the registered owner. The circuit court, in both cases, denied their request to have a mistake-of-fact jury instruction read.

In Mainaaupo's case, the circuit court also instructed the jury that he, the defendant, has a legal duty to obtain consent to operate the vehicle from the registered owner. Meanwhile, at Lopez's trial, the prosecutor made two comments in his closing argument. In the first, the prosecutor appealed to jurors' common sense and asked them to evaluate Lopez's silence after he was pulled over. The prosecutor also argued that Lopez failed to call a witness to corroborate his testimony. One went to Loepz's silence after he had been arrested by the police. The other pertained to the failure produce a critical witness to corroborate Lopez's own testimony.

Palisbo Distinguished. The lower court rejected the mistake-of-fact instruction based on State v. Palisbo, 93 Hawai'i 344, 3 P.3d 510 (App. 2000), and the legislative history of HRS § 708-836. HSC started off by distinguishing Palisbo. In that case, the ICA held that the lower court correctly refused a mistake-of-fact instruction because Palisbo "plainly admitted that he was aware that the person who had authorized his use of the vehicle was not the owner, but, rather, merely the cousin of the alleged owner." Unlike that case, the defendants here asserted a mistake-of-fact. Both believed that the person authorizing them to use the car were the registered owners. And so, when the defendant claims that he or she believed that the registered owner allowed him or her to use the car in question, the mistake-of-fact instruction is required, and Palisbo is not an obstacle.

Plain Language Requires the Mistake-of-fact Instruction. Putting Palisbo aside, the HSC examined HRS § 702-218, which states that it is a defense when the "accused engaged in the prohibited conduct under ignorance or mistake of fact if . . . [t]he ignorance or mistake negatives the state of mind required to establish an element[.]" Here are the elements of UCPV are (1) the conduct of exerting control over a thing by operating it; (2) the attendant circumstance of the thing being another's propelled vehicle; and (3) the other attendant circumstance of the person's control or operation being without the registered owner's consent or authorization. See HRS § 702-205. Here, the HSC applied the general rule that the knowing or intentional state of mind applies to all elements (unless it "plainly appears" otherwise in the statute), including the attendant circumstance that the control was without the registered owner's consent. In other words, the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant intentionally or knowingly took control or operation of the car without the registered owner's consent. In sum, the HSC held that the UCPV defendant may assert the mistake-of-fact defense (and ultimately get the instruction) to negate the essential element of authorization. This also means, according to the HSC, that the circuit court erred in instructing the jury that a defendant is required to show that he has a legal duty to determine whether the bailee is the registered owner.

Legislative History is Meaningless when it's Plain and Unambiguous. Interestingly, the State argued that the legislative history behind the UCPV statute that would render the state-of-mind requirement inapplicable to the third element. The HSC rejected this argument because the language of the UCPV statute was plain and unambiguous. The general rule of construction in interpreting statutes is that the plain language must be applied absent an ambiguity. When there is an ambiguity, then extrinsic evidence, such as the legislative history, may be used to discern the legislature's intent. The HSC held that because the language of the statute is plain and unambiguous, "we are not at liberty to rely upon legislative history . . . even if the history may show that the legislature really meant and intended something not expressed by the phraseology of the statute." Thus, legislative history is meaningless when the language is plain and unambiguous.

A Dramatic step. During the Richardson and Lum years, the HSC continuously held that the plain meaning, though very important in interpreting a statute, is not the only aid of construction. In fact, the earlier cases suggest that it is equally important to look to the legislative policy and intent behind the statute. For example, look to Perry v. Planning Commission, 62 Haw. 666, 676-77, 619 P.2d 95, 103 (1980), where the HSC held that a statute with the word "shall" doesn't always mean "shall" depending on the intent of the Legislature and the policy behind the statute. According to this older line of cases, the plain language, while helpful, does not necessarily preclude the aid of extrinsic help. Now, however, it appears that the court is no longer at liberty to rely on this history--even in the face of contrary legislative history and policy.

New Battlegrounds in Statutory Interpretation. The "foremost obligation" of the court is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the Legislature. State v. Van Dyke, 101 Hawai'i 377, 383-84, 69 P.3d 88, 94-95 (2003). The starting point is the language of the statute itself, and absent an absurd result, the court must give effect to the plain meaning of the unambiguous language. Thompson v. Kyo-Ya Co., 112 Hawai'i 472, 475, 146 P.3d 1049, 1052 (2006). Now, it seems that this “starting point” has become the end point too. Given the "foremost obligation," the ruling today suggests that the legislative history is never an aid that helps courts understand legislative intent when the language is plain. Put differently, the “foremost obligation” is met when the language is plain and can have no other meaning. The issue shifts. The question is no longer what the Legislature intended, but whether the words are ambiguous, and, if they are, what the Legislature really meant. The HSC did not need to delve further into this question here because the State did not argue that the statute was ambiguous. Perhaps next time.

Commenting on the Right to Silence is Prosecutorial Misconduct. Three factors help the court determine prosecutorial misconduct (1) the nature of the conduct; (2) the promptness of a curative instruction; and (3) the strength of the evidence against the defendant. State v. Hauge, 103 Hawai'i 38, 47, 79 P.3d 131, 140 (2003). The HSC held that because there is nothing mroe basic and fundamental than the right to remain silent, State v. Ahlo, 57 Haw. 418, 414, 558 P.2d 1012, 1016 (1976), and because the jury would "naturally and necessarily" interpret from the comments that the defendant's silence was wrong. As for the second factor, there was no curative instruction. In the third factor, the HSC held that the evidence against Lopez turned primarily on how he got the car. Thus,the evidence is not "so overwhelming that . . . the [State's] intrusion on Lopez's right to remain silent may not have contributed to his contribution." Thus, there was prosecutorial misconduct and it was not harmless error.

Commenting on the lack of Witnesses, However, is not. The HSC then examined if it was misconduct for the prosecutor to comment on Lopez’s failure to call Ramba, his friend whom he thought owned the car and was authorized to drive. According to the HSC, while it has previously ruled that it is permissible for the defendant to comment on the failure of the State to call a witness and thereby allow the jury to infer that the putative witness’s testimony would have hurt the State’s case, State v. Padilla, 57 Haw. 150, 552 P.2d 357 (1976), it had not determined whether it would be the same for the State to comment on the defendant’s failure to call a witness. The HSC, without applying the three-factors for prosecutorial misconduct and based in part on a federal case, US v. Bautista, 23 F.3d 726, 733 (2d Cir. 1994), found no error and concluded that the State may “invoke the adverse inference against the defendant for his [or her] failure to call a witness” when (1) it would be “natural under the circumstances for the defendant to call a witness” and (2) when the comments do not suggest to the jury that the defendant had the burden to produce the evidence. Here, Lopez conceded that it would have been natural for him to call his friends to corroborate his testimony. The HSC also held that the prosecutor’s comments did not shift the burden over to Lopez to call his friend to testify (though he did comment that had he did testify, he would have voted not guilty).

Justice Acoba's Concurrence and Dissent. Justice Acoba concurred all the way until this last point. Justice Acoba believed that it was prosecutorial misconduct to comment on Lopez’s failure to call Ramba, even under the newly-adopted Bautista test. Justice Acoba explained that Lopez’s theory at trial was that he thought Ramba was authorized to loan him the car. Taken as a whole, the prosecutor’s comments allowed the jury to think that in order to acquit Lopez, the defendant was required to show he did not have the mental state to commit UCPV. Specifically, the prosecutor commented that Lopez’s testimony that he believed Ramba was the registered owner who had given him permission to use the car was insufficient, and that in order for, the prosecutor at least, to vote not guilty, Ramba would have to testify. This comment for Justice Acoba impermissibly shifts the burden over to the defendant and thus arose to error. As Lopez’s conviction is vacated, Justice Acoba urged that a similar argument be abandoned on remand.


LoF said…
I highly doubt that trial courts will see any statutory language as plain and unambiguous until a few more of these are cranked out and a few more of them are overruled. I just don't know if this opinion is good or bad.

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