HRE Governs Motions in Limine about Evidence, No Explanation Required

 State v. Marroquin (HSC March 17, 2021)

Background. Benito Marroquin III was charged with assault. He claimed self-defense and filed motions in limine seeking admission of statements made by eyewitnesses to the police. These statements were evidence that Marroquin punched the complainant because the complainant was choking him. Marroquin argued that the statement to the police was a statement of recent perception and, therefore, an exception to the hearsay rule pursuant to HRE Rule 804(b)(8). Marroquin also proffered in another motion in limine evidence from a defense investigator who interviewed another co-worker. This co-worker told the investigator that the complainant announced he “wasn’t going to take that from a punk like [Marroquin].” Marroquin also argued this statement was admissible pursuant to HRE Rule 804(b)(8). The circuit court, with the Hon. Judge Ronald Ibarra presiding, denied both motions. On the proffered evidence from the police officer, the circuit court stated it was “akin to State v. Juhn,” 83 Hawai'i 472, 927 P.2d 1355 (1996), which pertained to the public records exception pursuant to HRE Rule 803(b)(8). The circuit court gave no other explanation for the denial.


At trial, the complainant testified that he was assaulted by Marroquin without provocation. He admitted that he thought “if I could just grab him and hold onto him in a bear hug I could stop the madness. But I never accomplished that. Next thing I remember, I was on the ground.” On cross-examination, the complainant denied grabbing Marroquin’s neck. On redirect he testified that he had “no memory of laying my hands” on Marroquin’s neck. After the prosecution rested, the defense renewed its request to admit the evidence proffered in the motions in limine. The circuit court still denied the motion and added “there’s still nothing new . . . for the Court to consider.”


Marroquin testified in his defense. He testified that the complainant was choking him and he hit him to get him to stop. The jury found him guilty of assault in the second degree. He was sentenced and appealed. The ICA affirmed.


Motions in Limine Regarding Evidence Governed by HRE, not HRPP. The HSC addressed the inconsistency between the Hawai'i Rules of Penal Procedure and the Hawai'i Rules of Evidence. Pretrial motions generally must be determined before trial “unless the court orders that it be deferred for determination at trial of the general issue[.]” HRPP Rule 12(e). “Where factual issues are involved in determining a motion, the court shall state its essential findings on the record.” Id. On the other hand, when ruling on the admissibility of evidence, the trial court “may add any other or further statement which shows the character of the evidence, the form in which it was offered, the objection made, and the ruling thereon.” HRE Rule 103(b). The HSC noted that if HRPP controlled, the trial court was required to explain why it denied the admission of the proffered evidence on the record. If the rules of evidence applied, it was at the court’s discretion.


A motion in limine, while a pretrial motion, “serves the useful purpose of raising an pointing out before trial certain evidentiary ruligns the court may be called upon to make during the course of the trial.” Kobashigawa v. Silva, 129 Hawai'i 313, 321, 300 P.3d 579, 587 (2013). HRE Rule 103(b) is designed to “provide the appellate court with a record adequate for final disposition of an evidentiary point. The provision is discretionary rather than mandatory, leaving determination of adequacy of record to the judgment of the trial court.” HRE Rule 103 commentary.


In resolving which rule applied, the HSC turned to HRS § 626-3:


If any other provision of law, including any rule promulgated by the supreme court, is inconsistent with [the HRE], [the HRE] shall govern unless [the HRE] or such inconsistent provision of law specifically provides otherwise.


The HRE clearly applied to this case. HRE Rule 1101(b). The HSC held that motions in limine about the admission of evidence are governed by the HRE. The factual finding requirement in HRPP Rule 12(e) did not apply. Therefore, it’s at the discretion of the trial court to explain why evidence is admissible or excluded.


Justice Wilson’s Dissent. Justice Wilson disagreed in upholding the conviction. According to Justice Wilson, Marroquin proffered evidence would have been used to impeach the complainant and show that he was acting in self-defense. “A trial court’s denial of a defendant’s constitutional right to impeach a witness . . . . is subject to the harmless beyond a reasonable doubt standard.” State v. Brown, 145 Hawai'i 56, 62, 446 P.3d 973, 979 (2019). When “there is a reasonable possibility that the error complained of might have contributed to the conviction,” the error is not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. Id.


Justice Wilson explained that this case came down to credibility. The complainant denied choking Marroquin. Marroquin testified otherwise. The proffered evidence corroborated Marroquin’s version of events. Justice Wilson wrote that the circuit court erred in denying the proffered evidence. The trial court was required to determine if the proffered hearsay statements were statements of recent perception pursuant to HRE Rule 804(b)(5). That did not happen. This failure to analyze the evidence as requested constituted the error. The error was raised again at trial. For Justice Wilson that was enough to vacate the conviction and remand for new trial.


Is Everybody Right? This case is strange. The majority held that motions in limine pertaining to the admission of evidence invoke the Hawai'i Rules of Evidence. Therefore, HRE Rule 103(b) applies rather than the more generalized HRPP Rule 12(e) for pretrial motions. It means that the trial court is not required to explain its rulings or issue findings to support the ruling. What’s missing is the analysis on the merits.


Justice Wilson does not address the majority’s holding at all. His "dissent" goes straight to the issue of whether the trial court erred in denying the motion or even examining whether the proffered evidence should be admitted under the hearsay rules. Seems like everyone’s right.


Sure, HRE applies to these motions in limine and the lower court was not required to explain its ruling. But was that the right call in the first place? The majority has nothing to say about that. Only Justice Wilson. Can the HRE apply and can the conviction be vacated because the evidence should have been admitted at trial and it’s not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt? Apparently not.


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