HSC Applies Rule of Lenity to Order for Protection

State v. Bright (HSC June 3, 2020)

Background. Justin Bright was the respondent in a petition for an order for protection in the family court. He agreed to the order that prohibited him from having contact with the petitioner. The order specifically laid out what to do when he happened to come across the petitioner in public:

Respondent is prohibited from coming or passing within 100 yards of any place of employment or where the petitioner lives and within 100 feet of each other at neutral locations. In the event the parties happen to come upon each other at a neutral location, the subsequent arriving party shall leave immediately or stay at least 100 feet from the other. When the parties happen to come upon each other at the same time at a neutral location, the Respondent shall leave immediately or stay at least 100 feet from the Petitioner.

Do not violate this order even if the Petitioner invites you to be at the place of employment or where the other lives.

The order did not define the words “neutral location.” The order also allows the parties to use “Kuamoo Road to access their respective residences.”

Bright was charged with violating the order for protection. HRS §§ 586-5.5 and 586-11(a). At trial, the prosecution presented evidence that Bright started working at the Kauai’s Fifth Circuit courthouse as a documents clerk. The petitioner, a forensic social worker, had to go to the courthouse three to four times a week because of her job. A week into Bright’s job at around 7:40 a.m. the petitioner and her father were walking toward the courthouse when they saw Bright walking toward the courthouse. By the time the petitioner got to the top of the stairs, Bright was about 20 feet away from her.

The petitioner and her father continued up the stairs and into the courthouse. Bright remained outside and sat on a wall nearby. Bright testified that he did not realize that was the petitioner until she was near the stairs. At that point, he waited outside the courthouse. When his boss came to the building he said he didn’t know what to do about the situation. He ended up going through the back.

The family court found Bright guilty and sentenced him to two years probation. The ICA affirmed. Bright petitioned for a writ of certiorari.

Orders for Protection must be Clear. “[F]airness and due process dictate that a court order must be sufficiently particular and definite so as to clearly identify the conduct that it prohibits.” State v. Guyton, 135 Hawai'i 372, 377-378, 351 P.3d 1138, 1143-1144 (2015). If the order for protection is not clear and unambiguous the rule of lenity requires it be “construed in favor of the defendant.” Id. at 381, 351 P.3d at 1147.

The HSC examined the stay away order prohibiting Bright from “coming or passing within 100 yards of any place of employment or where the petitioner lives and within 100 feet of each other at neutral locations.”

 “Neutral Location” is Ambiguous. The HSC rejected the contention of the parties and found the words “neutral location” ambiguous. Language “subject to two possible meanings” is ambiguous. State v. Fukusaku, 85 Hawai'i 462, 491, 946 P.2d 32, 61 (1997). Put differently, when “there is doubt, doubleness of meaning, or indistinctiveness or uncertainty of any expression used in a statute, an ambiguity exists.” State v. Toyomura, 80 Hawai'i 8, 19, 904 P.2d 893, 904 (1995). The HSC he4ld that the provision in the order for protection is ambiguous. It is unclear if a neutral location refers to every location that are not the petitioner’s residence or place of employment or those locations that are unaffiliated with either party.

 The rule of lenity requires the courts to construe the ambiguous term in favor of the defendant. See State v. Woodfall, 120 Hawai'i 387, 396, 206 P.3d 841, 850 (2009). It also adheres to the plain language of the term. The narrowest interpretation of the words “neutral location” signifies a place that is not associated with either party. That means that Bright’s place of employment is not a “neutral location.” He did not violate the order for protection when he came within 100 feet of the petitioner at his place of employment, which is not a “neutral location.”


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