Trial Court must Instruct Jury on Statutory Definitions of Offense

 State v. Lajala (ICA March 30, 2021)

Background. Malia Lajala was indicted with, among other things, the offense of hindering prosecution in the first degree. HRS § 710-1029(1). Her trial lasted more than a month. At the end of the trial, the prosecution proposed instructions on the elements of the offense, but did not define the words “rendered assistance,” one of the statutory terms in offense. One of Lajala’s co-defendants provided instructions that included the statutory definition of the term. Lajala joined in the request to have the instruction, but over the defense’s objection, the circuit court, with the Hon. Judge Robert Kim presiding, refused to provide it to the jury. Lajala was found guilty. Her motion for new trial raising the issue was denied. She was later convicted and sentenced. She appealed to the ICA. The record on appeal did not include the trial transcripts.


Getting the Right Instructions is on the Court, not the Parties. “In a jury trial, it is the court’s responsibility to ensure that the jury is properly instructed on the law and the questions the jury is to decide.” State v. Abella, 145 Hawai'i 541, 556, 454 P.3d 482, 497 (2019). Like any criminal offense, the prosecution must prove every element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. HRS § 701-114.


Here, Lajala was on trial for the offense of hindering prosecution in the first degree. “A person commits the offense of hindering prosecution in the first degree if, with the intent to hinder the apprehension, prosecution, conviction, or punishment of another for a class A, B, or C felony or murder in any degree, the person renders assistance to the other person.” HRS § 710-1029(1). The words “renders assistance” are defined in HRS § 710-1028:


[A] person renders assistance to another if he:

(1)             Harbors or conceals such person;

(2)            Warns such person of impending discovery, apprehension, prosecution, or conviction, except this does not apply to a warning given in connection with an effort to bring another into compliance with the law;

(3)            Provides such person with money, transportation, weapon, disguise, or other means of avoiding discovery, apprehension, prosecution, or conviction;

(4)            Prevents or obstructions, by means of force, deception, or intimidation, anyone from performing an act that might aid or in the discovery, apprehension, prosecution, or conviction of such person; or

(5)            Suppresses by an act of concealment, alteration, or destruction any physical evidence that might aid in the discovery, apprehension, prosecution, or conviction of such person.

There is even a pattern jury instruction that substantially provides this statutory definition. HAWJIC No. 12.13. The ICA examined these five categories and concluded that while they “cover a wide variety of assistance in the context of attempts to evade or impede justice, they delineate a limited universe. They do not include all possible kinds of assistance . . . that one person may give to another.”


Statutory Term is Part of the Offense and must be Included in Instructions on the Offense to Ensure it is not Misunderstood. The failure to include statutory definitions that are part of the elements of the offense render the instructions prejudicial and insufficient. See State v. Faria, 100 Hawai'i 383, 394-395, 60 P.3d 333, 344-345 (2002) (failure to instruct jury on the word “entry” in prosecution for unauthorized entry into motor vehicle); State v. Kupihea, 98 Hawai'i 196, 206, 46 P.3d 498, 508 (2002) (failure to define “paraphernalia” in drug paraphernalia charge error). The ICA held that the phrase “renders assistance” is “susceptible to multiple meanings” and the trial court was required to provide the statutory definition to the jury. The circuit court erred in refusing to provide that definition here.


Once Error is Found, it’s on the Prosecution to Show Harmlessness (it Didn’t Here). The ICA took up the prosecution’s argument that the failure to provide the instruction was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. “Erroneous instructions are presumptively harmful and are a ground for reversal unless it affirmatively appears from the record as a whole that the error was not prejudicial.” Stanley v. State, 148 Hawai'i 489, 500, 479 P.3d 107, 108 (2021). In this case, the ICA did not have the trial transcripts in the record on appeal. The prosecution argued that it was up to Lajala to provide a sufficient record to determine harmlessness. The ICA, however, rejected this claim. Erroneous instructions are presumptively harmful. The ICA reminded the prosecution that “once instructional error is established in a criminal case, the burden shifts to the State to show that the error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.” That meant the prosecution had the duty to provide a sufficient record to determine if the error was harmless. It failed. Thus, the ICA vacated the conviction and remanded the case back to the Big Island.


The Prosecution’s Gamble. The harmless error analysis does not create new law. Instructional error has been reviewed for harmlessness for some time now. However, this is one of the few examples in which an appellate court has examined the burden-shifting nature of the standard. It is presumed harmful once the error is established and it’s on the prosecution to show why the conviction should be upheld anyway.


This case highlights some of the pitfalls of an incomplete record. Lajala as the appellant was required to review the record on appeal and make sure she had everything she needed to raise her point of error. She did. That point of error did not include the lengthy trial transcripts. There was no need for her to do it. HRAP Rule 10(b)(1). That—like demonstrating harmlessness—was on the prosecution as the appellee to supplement the record. HRAP Rule 10(b)(1)(H)(4). The prosecution took a gamble here by not ordering the transcripts and lost.


Popular posts from this blog

Police Officers Can't Testify if the Driver was "Intoxicated" in Drunk Driving Trials

Officer’s False Testimony Prompts New Trial Even Though it did not Pertain to the Defendant’s Guilt

Judges Cannot Resort to Coercion to Settle the Case