ICA: Circuit Court Cannot Ignore the Inevitable Discovery Doctrine, Remands in Absence of Findings

State v. Rodrigues (HSC January 25, 2010)

Background. Officer Williamson discovered that Rodrigues had outstanding bench warrants and placed him under arrest. Officer Williamson conducted a search incident to the arrest, but instead of doing a pat-down, he pulled out items from Rodrigues' pockets, including clear plastic baggies containing crystal methamphetamine. Rodrigues was put in the Kauai Police Dept. cell block. Officer Williamson admitted that he did not believe Rodrigues concealed weapons, drugs, needles, or any other contraband.

Rodrigues was charged with promoting a dangerous drug in the 3d (HRS § 712-1243). Rorigues filed a motion to suppress. The State argued that the evidence was still admissible because it would have been inevitably discovered during an inventory search that take place in the police cellblock. At the hearing, Sergeant Kaui testified that arresting officers are responsible for conducing searches of the arrestee, including pockets. The circuit court rejected the State's argument and granted the motion. The circuit court made no findings or conclusions with regard to the inevitable discovery argument. The State appealed.

True, the Search was Unconstitutional . . . On appeal, the State conceded that the search of Rodrigues' pockets was unconstitutional. See State v. Enos, 68 Haw. 509, 720 P.2d 1012 (1986). A search incident to an arrest must be limited to what is "reasonably necessary to discover the fruits or instrumentalities of the crime for which the defendant is arrested, or to protect the officer from attack, or to prevent the offender from escaping." Id. 68 Haw. at 511, 720 P.2d at 1104. The State conceded--and the ICA agreed--that Officer Williamson's search of Rodrigues' pockets was unconstitutional.

But Entre Inevitable Discovery. The analysis, of course, doesn't end there. Evidence that was unconstitutionally obtained may still be used at trial if "the prosecution can establish . . . that the information ultimately or inevitably would have been discovered by lawful means[.]" State v. Lopez, 78 Hawai'i 433, 450, 896 P.2d 889, 906 (1995) (quoting Nix v. Williams, 467 U.S. 431, 444 (1984)). The prosecutor must present clear and convincing evidence of the inevitable discovery. Id. at 451, 896 P.2d at 907. Clear and convincing evidence is "evidence that will produce in the mind of a reasonable person a firm belief as to the facts sought to be established." Id. at 451 n. 30, 890 P.2d at 907, n. 30.

Failure to Enter Findings on the Record Violated Rules of Penal Procedure. "Where factual issues are involved in determining a motion, the court shall state its essential findings on the record." Hawai'i Rules of Penal Procedure (HRPP) Rule 12(e). The ICA concluded that because the circuit court relied exclusively on Enos, the circuit court erred in granting the suppression without addressing the inevitable discovery exception. According to the ICA, the circuit court made no findings of fact nor oral ruling with regard to the inevitable discovery doctrine and violated HRPP Rule 12(e).

Remand Based on Insufficient Findings. According to the ICA, it is not its role "to make determinations as to the credibility of witness or the weight of the evidence." It therefore refused to conclude that the State established clear and convincing evidence that the plastic baggies would have been inevitably discovered through an inventory search in the police cellblock and remanded the case. In remanding the case, the ICA relied on State v. Anderson, 67 Haw. 513, 693 P.2d 1029 (1985), where the HSC remanded because the circuit court "made absolutely no findings of fact" and it was impossible for the appellate court "to determine the factual basis for the lower court's ruling." Id. at 513, 693 P.2d at 1029-30. The ICA also relied on State v. Hutch, 75 Haw. 307, 331, 861 P.2d 11, 23 (1993) ("cases will be remanded when the factual basis of the lower court's ruling cannot be determined from the record.").

What is the Remedy for HRPP Rule 12(e) Violations Anyways? Very recently, the Hawai'i Supreme Court addressed a similar, but related problem in State v. Estabillio, 121 Hawai'i 261, 218 P.3d 749 (2009). In that case, the circuit court entered no findings of fact or conclusions of law. Nonetheless, the HSC found that the circuit court complied with HRPP Rule 12(e) because it stated its essential findings on the record. Because of the compliance, the HSC concluded that "the circuit court's failure to file a written order denying the motion to suppress is not fatal to Estabillio's appeal." Id. at 267 n. 6, 218 P.3d at 755 n. 6. The Estabillio footnote suggests that a violation of HRPP Rule 12(e) would have jeopardized appellate review.

It appears that the ICA took a different approach in remanding the case without reference to Estabillio. Perhaps remand is fairer. After all, the appellant has no control over the entry of findings that would be subject to appeal. If violations of HRPP Rule 12(e) are "fatal," then any circuit court ruling in violation of the rule would escape appellate review. But can the HSC be so easily ignored? Is remanding the case at odds with Estabillio? Can the two be reconciled? Could Rodrigues--or any appellee--have argued that the HRPP Rule 12(e) violation was "fatal to [the State's] appeal"? And what then?


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