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Hawai’i Supreme Court Announces New Rule Requiring Both Judges and Juries to Consider Numerous Factors in Witness ID Cases

by Dale Chappell

The Supreme Court of Hawai’i held on October 1, 2019, that when a judge assesses the admissibility of an eyewitness’ identification of a defendant, not only does the jury have to consider a list of factors in deciding if the witness has properly identified to defendant, but now so does the judge presiding over the trial.

Before discussing the case before the Court, a little history will help clarify the reason the Court adopted a new rule in this case.

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Neil v. Biggers, 409 U.S. 188 (1972), providing five criteria for admitting an eyewitness’ identification of a defendant. They are: (1) the opportunity of the witness to view the defendant at the time of the crime, (2) the witness’ degree of attention toward the defendant, (3) the accuracy of the witness’ prior description of the defendant compared to the description at trial, (4) the level of certainty demonstrated by the witness at the identification, and (5) the length of time between the crime and the identification. The Supreme Court of Hawai’i adopted Biggers in State v. Padilla, 552 P.2d 357 (Haw. 1976).

These are called the “Padilla Factors,” and they were largely set aside in State v. Cabagbag, 277 P.3d 1027 (Haw. 2012), which held that when the trustworthiness of an eyewitness is questioned, courts must give a jury instruction outlining 13 factors. Those factors were later incorporated into the model jury instructions for such instances. They were set aside because the Court recognized that new scientific evidence has shown since Biggers and Padilla were decided that eyewitness identification has been the single biggest problem leading to wrongful convictions. The Court cited a 2011 study showing misidentified defendants accounted for 76 percent of wrongful convictions.

The case before the Court was another eyewitness challenge. When Honolulu Police found Bronson Kaneaiakala naked in an apartment laundry room, he was wearing a watch that was reported stolen from a person’s apartment in that building. And the person who owned the watch was the one who found him and called the police.

The eyewitness who said she saw Kaneaiakala climb through the apartment window was the focus of the trial, not the watch owner, who didn’t see Kaneaiakala do anything except wear his watch. The problem was that the eyewitness was not very reliable to start, and the procedures used by the police to have her identify Kaneaiakala were improperly suggestive. The State even admitted this at trial.

But the eyewitness’ identification of Kaneaiakala was still accepted because of the totality of the circumstances. She met the five criteria under Padilla. Though the eyewitness admitted she wasn’t completely sure it was Kaneaiakala she saw climb through the window—she didn’t have her glasses on and she only saw a side view of his face as she passed by—the other evidence was enough to affirm his conviction for first degree burglary and 10-year sentence on appeal.

The three new rules the Court announced in Kaneaiakala’s case are: (1) “trial courts must, at minimum, consider any relevant factors set out in the Hawai’i Pattern Jury Instructions,” (2) “trial courts must also consider the effect of any suggestiveness on the reliability of the identification in determining whether it should be admitted into evidence,” and (3) “when an eyewitness or show-up identification [when the police bring the witness to the crime scene to identify a suspect] is central to a case or has been procured though a suggestive eyewitness or show-up identification, the jury must also be instructed to consider the impact of any suggestive procedure on the reliability of the eyewitness or show-up identification.”

Although the Court announced new rules for witness identification, they do not apply retroactively. The circuit court did not err in determining the reliability of the witness identification in Kaneaiakala’s case under the Padilla test in effect at the time.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the circuit court’s denial of his motion to suppress the witness identification. See: State v. Kaneaiakala, 450 P.3d 761 (Haw. 2019).

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Related legal case

State v. Kaneaiakala



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