HSC puts Warrant Checks in Check

State v. Iona (HSC May 22, 2019)
Background. Kekoa Iona and two others were riding bicycles when a police officer stopped them on Keeaumoku Street in Honolulu. All three bikes did not have any tax decals, which is required by state and local law. HRS §§ 249-14, 249-15 and Revised Ordinances of Honolulu § 15-18.1. The officer inquired where they got the bikes. Iona said he owned it, but later said he borrowed it from a man named “Nalu” at the park. The officer took more information like their names and then commenced a warrant check on them. This took about three to four minutes. More officers arrived. Then a few more. The initial officer waited until he had all of the information—including the warrant check—before issuing a citation for lack of tax decals.

Another officer called dispatch to run Iona’s serial number on the bike to see if it was registered to him or stolen. Dispatch confirmed the bike was not registered to Iona or “Nalu,” but a Waianae resident instead. It was not reported stolen. The officer attempted to contact the registered owner, but couldn’t reach that person. He called the Waianae police station and asked for an officer to drive to the registered owner’s house and ask if the bike was stolen. The warrant check came back fourteen minutes after the stop and showed that Iona had a warrant for contempt of court at $100.he was never issued a citation and no citation was being written.

Iona was arrested and patted down. The officers discovered a small plastic sleeve and bags containing what appeared to be crystal methamphetamine. He was charged with promoting a dangerous drug in the third degree and unlawful use of drug paraphernalia. His motion to suppress was denied. At a bench trial, the circuit court (Judge Edward Kubo, Jr.) found him guilty and sentenced Iona to five years prison. He appealed, the ICA affirmed, and he petitioned to the HSC.

Traffic Stops are Warrantless Seizures. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and Art. I, Sec. 7 of the Hawaii Constitution protect persons from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. They protect “the privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions by government officials.” State v. Navas, 81 Hawaii 113, 122, 913 P.2d 39, 48 (1996). It is designed “to prevent the government from functioning as a police state.” State v. Taua, 98 Hawaii 426, 466 n. 5, 49 P.3d 1227, 1247 n. 5 (2002) (Acoba, J., dissenting).

A warrantless search or seizure is “presumed invalid unless and until the prosecution proves that the search or seizure falls within a well-recognized and narrowly defined exception to the warrant requirement.” State v. Pendergast, 103 Hawaii 451, 454, 83 P.3d 714, 717 (2004).

The Terry Stop Exception and the Two-Part Test. One exception to the warrant requirement is a brief investigative detention when the police have “a reasonable suspicion based on specific and articulable facts that criminal activity is afoot.” State v. Spillner, 116 Hawaii 351, 357, 173 P.3d 498, 504 (2007). This detention is limited in scope and length. “In order to pass constitutional muster, the length of time the officer could permissibly detain the defendant must have been no greater in intensity than absolutely necessary under the circumstances.” State v. Estabillio, 121 Hawaii 261, 271, 218 P.3d 749, 759 (2009).

The HSC adopted a two-part test to determine this exception to the warrant requirement: (1) the investigative stop must be justified at its inception; and (2) the search or seizure must be “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.” State v. Perez, 111 Hawaii 392, 397, 141 P.3d 1039, 1044 (2006).

The scope of this detention must “last no longer than is necessary to effectuate the purpose of the detention.” State v. Alvarez, 138 Hawaii 173, 182, 378 P.3d 889, 898 (2016). The scope is also limited in “the subject matter and intensity of the investigative detention[.]” Id.

The Detention of Iona Exceeded the Permissible Scope to Write the Citation. The HSC held that the traffic stop of Iona on his bicycle was unconstitutional. He was stopped because he lacked the necessary tax decal. Iona provided the officer the necessary information to write the citation within three or four minutes of the stop. But the officer did not immediately write up a citation. Instead, he called for a warrant check and held there until the warrant check came back. The officers further inquired into the registered owner of the bicycle and tried to find and contact that owner. There was no effort to write up the citation. The delay in waiting for the warrant check exceeded the permissible scope of the detention. The stop was unconstitutional and the drugs obtained after the arrest should have been suppressed.

So What do we do? What would happen if the officer wrote the citation, let them ride along on their bikes and then do the warrant check? Could the officer have followed them until the check came back and then arrest them? Is that what needs to happen from here on out? That would be better police work.

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