HSC Expands Deferrals to Offenses Outside the Penal Code
State v. Medeiros (HSC December 20, 2019)
Background. Kaohulani Medeiros was charged with place to keep unloaded firearms, place to keep ammunition, a hunting hours violation, and prohibited use of an artificial light—the latter two were violations of HAR § 13-123-6 and 7. Medeiros pleaded not guilty and moved to suppress the evidence. At the hearing, DLNR officers testified that they were on patrol between Kaupo and Ulupalakua at night on the leeward side of Haleakala. They stopped at a vista and saw a gray Toyota pickup truck pass by and started to see the “panning of a light.” The light was coming from the driver’s side and slowly moved down the highway. This, the officers testified, was commonly used to track and hunt animals like deer on the side of the road. The officers tried to pursue the truck, but lost sight of it.
Minutes later a truck similar to the one they observed drove past them in the opposite direction. The officers stopped the truck. Medeiros was in the vehicle wearing a camouflage t-shirt. One of the officers told him “I won’t lie to you. What we observed earlier was a light panning from this vehicle.” Medeiros responded, “I’m not going to lie to you either. I was spotlighting.” The officers recovered an unloaded rifle and bullets in the cupholder of the vehicle. The motion was denied.
Medeiros then entered a plea agreement with the prosecution. He pleaded no contest to counts three and four and the prosecution dismissed the felonies—counts 1 and 2. The agreement further provided that Mederios would be sentenced to a $100 fine for each count. Medeiros also moved to defer his no contest plea and requested that the court defer the plea pursuant to HRS Chapter 853. At sentencing, Medeiros presented letters written by his father and brother explaining that the rifle was registered to Medeiros’s father and both had permission to use and transport the rifle.
At the sentencing hearing, Medeiros told the court he was “sorry for the mess that I got myself into. And your’e not going to see me in here gain. I can gauarantee that. This I was just one big misunderstanding.” The prosecutor believed Medeiros and told the court “I’m comfortable that this was a learning experience for Mr. Medeiros. I don’t think that he will be back in court again.” The prosecution did not oppose the deferral.
The circuit court, presided by Hon. Judge Rhonda Loo, disagreed and found Mederios was “likely again to engage in such a criminal course of conduct.” The circuit court explained:
[T]he Court is concerned about the defendant’s . . . half truths, admitting that he was spotlighting, the same time saying that he was home to Hana from work, when eh was going in the opposite direction.
The Court’s also concerned about the camouflage wear, the . . . location where this took place, which is known for night hunting. That is occurred at night, 8:30 to 9:00, which is defienitely within the time period for hunting hours.
The circuit court imposed the $200 fine and probation for six months. Medeiros appealed. On appeal, Medeiros challenged the circuit court’s analysis in the denial of the deferral. The prosecution for the first time argued that Medeiros was ineligible for the deferral pursuant to State v. Hamili, 87 Hawaii 102, 952 P.2d 390 (1998), and further argued that the circuit court did not err in denying the motion. The ICA affirmed. Medeiros petitioned for further review.
Deferral Pleas Available to Nighthunters. Night hunting and artificial light offenses are petty misdemeanors in the Hawaii Administrative Rules. In State v. Hamili, the HSC held that fishing with gill nets was a nonprobationable offense and non-deferrable. Id. at 87 Hawaii at 107, 952 P.2d at 395. The Hamili court reasoned that the sentencing disposition for the DLNR offense was controlled by HRS § 188-70(a), which expressly stated that a person convicted of “any rule adopted pursuant” to the chapter “shall be punished . . . by a fine of not more than $500, or by imprisonment of not more than thirty days, or both[.]”
In this case, the authorizing disposition statute is HRS § 183D-5, which also uses the word “shall” and does not enumerate probation or deferral. While it appears that Hamili is dispositive, the HSC held that that case was wrongly decided and overruled it.
HRS § 706-605 authorizes the sentencing court to sentence a petty misdemeanant to a suspended sentence or a term of probation. HRS § 706-605(1), (3). was a legislative attempt, according to the HSC, to authorize the sentencing court to grant a deferral plea or impose probation for petty misdemeanors. The Hamili court failed to recognize this and is overruled. And so, Medeiros is eligible for a deferral.
Not all Petty Misdemeanors are Equal. If there is a strong legislative intent to prohibit a probation and therefore deferral period, then the petty misdemeanor is nonprobationable. That distinction is made with State v. Dannenberg, 74 Haw. 75, 837 P.2d 776 (1992) (prostitution statute), and State v. Mun Chung Tom, 69 Haw. 602, 752 P.2d 597 (1988) (operating under the influence of an intoxicant). The HSC held that in this case there was nothing indicating a strong exclusion and so probation/deferral is available.
The Sentencing Court Abused its Discretion in Denying the Deferral Plea. When a defendant is eligible for a deferral plea, the sentencing court may grant deferral if three prongs are met:
(1) [The] defendant voluntarily pleads guilty or nolo contendere, prior to the commencement of trial to a felony, misdemeanor, or petty misdemeanor;
(2) It appears to the court that the defendant is not likely again to engage in a criminal course of conduct; and
(3) The ends of justice and the welfare of society do not require that the defendant shall presently suffer the penalty imposed by law.
HRS § 853-1(a).
The circuit court in this case denied the deferral based on the second prong—that Medeiros was likely to again engage in a criminal course of conduct. This amounted to an abuse of discretion. According to the HSC, the circuit court’s ruling on the motion is based on the manner in which Medeiros committed the offenses and the fact that one of his statements to the officers was inconsistent with other evidence. This has nothing to do with the likelihood of again engaging in a criminal course of conduct. The judgment was vacated and remanded back to the circuit court.
Justice Nakayama’s Concurrence. Justice Nakayama wrote separately to concur with the results of the HSC. She agreed that the circuit court abused its discretion in denying the deferral. Medeiros is a twenty-three-year old man with no prior criminal history who assured the court that he was sorry for the mess he got himself into and guaranteed he would not appear before the court again.
She wrote separately because she believed the prosecution waived the argument that Medeiros was ineligible for a DANC plea and because the prosecution never raised the issue before the circuit court there was no need to revisit Hamili. Under her analysis there was no need to consider the eligibility of the deferral. Once the circuit court sentenced Medeiros to probation the court was obligated to consider the three factors in HRS § 853-1. Justice Nakayama agreed with the rest of the justices that the circuit court abused its discretion in denying the deferral.