Lawmakers pass legislation to clarify the “messy situation” in state courts

More than 1,000 misdemeanor and minor misdemeanor cases were dismissed on Oahu, and dozens more were either dismissed or appealed on neighboring islands because of procedural issues with how prosecutors initiated those cases.

House bill 1541 aims to correct deficiencies identified in a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling in December. It was approved by the House of Representatives earlier in this session and passed unanimously by the Senate on Monday. It now goes to Gov. David Ige for consideration, and if it becomes law, the Honolulu Attorney’s Office plans to retry many of the cases.

“Honestly, it’s a pretty messy situation in our courts,” Honolulu Attorney Steve Alm told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.

The problem arises from the way prosecutors file criminal complaints in court. Typically, an assistant prosecutor signs the end of the written complaint, which includes a brief summary of all alleged violations. The written complaint ensures that a person appears in court, otherwise they could be charged with contempt.

Alm told lawmakers this is the process the bureau has been following for decades.

But the Supreme Court said in its ruling that’s not enough to satisfy a state law that requires a “complainant” to sign written complaints. Instead, these documents should be “signed under oath by the complainant or made by declaration rather than an affidavit”.

Honolulu Attorney Steve Alm introduced a bill that would clarify who should sign criminal complaints. Legislature approved that measure, House Bill 1541, on Monday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Exactly what that means is up for debate. Some judges have interpreted this as requiring prosecutors to obtain signatures from victims of crimes, county prosecutors said legislative testimony.

HB 1541, introduced at the request of the public prosecutor, clarifies that criminal complaints can be signed by public prosecutors.

Since the December verdict, 1,015 cases have been dropped on Oahu. According to Matt Dvonch, a spokesman for the Honolulu Attorney’s Office, most were misdemeanor, petty misdemeanor and petty misdemeanor cases.

Alm said in written testimony that these cases include drunk driving, sexual assault, assault, restraining order violations and domestic abuse.

Prosecutors are not aware of any felony cases dismissed as a result of the Supreme Court ruling, Dvonch said.

Many of the cases have been dropped unscathed, meaning prosecutors are free to recharge. The Bureau plans to do this when HB 1541 becomes law.

The public prosecutor’s office opposed the measure. Assistant Public Defender Jon Ikenaga said prosecutors could still pursue all of those cases. You just have to follow the procedures in accordance with the court ruling. This could include collecting signatures from crime victims.

“Prosecutors just have to comply,” Ikenaga said. “You don’t seem to want to.”

Once the bill is officially submitted to the governor’s office, Ige has 10 days to sign the measure or it becomes law without his signature.

His office said HB 1541, like all measures clarifying the legislature, needs to be reviewed by the departments of state and subjected to legal review.

the Judgment of the Supreme Federal Court comes from a 2017 abuse case on the Big Island. In that case, the defendant, Corey Thompson, asked a court to dismiss his misdemeanor charges because prosecutors had not included an affidavit with the lawsuit in that case. The complaint contained only a single page, signed by an assistant prosecutor.

A district court judge sided with Thompson. In 2020, the Intermediate Court of Appeals instead ruled that a prosecutor’s signature was sufficient to bring criminal proceedings.

In December, the state Supreme Court unanimously reversed the ICA opinion.

The ruling gave state judges difficulty in interpreting who should be required to sign criminal complaints.

“What the judges decide is all over the map,” Alm told lawmakers during a committee hearing.

Chief Justice of the State of Hawaii, Mark Recktenwald, accompanied by associate judges, hears oral arguments on a relocation case.
A December Hawaii Supreme Court ruling left state judges confused, prosecutors say. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

All four district attorneys testified in favor of HB 1541. All expressed concerns that the Thompson ruling would require crime victims to sign written reports.

Maui County Attorney Andrew Martin said in written testimony that the Thompson ruling could have a “severe deterrent effect” on law enforcement in the state.

“Abuse victims would also be required to sign complaints against their abuser before going to their homes,” Martin wrote. “Victims of sexual assault on children would have to make a criminal allegation under oath against an offender who might live in the same house.”

Although police and prosecutors can obtain signed statements from crime victims, Alm told lawmakers it might be difficult to follow up on victims and then sign a written complaint.

HB 1541 was also supported by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Oahu and Big Island Police Departments, the Hawaii State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Domestic Violence Action Center, and the Retail Merchants of Hawaii.

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