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Hawai’i Supreme Court Rules Search Warrant Failed to Satisfy the Particularity Requirement for Multiple-Occupancy Dwellings

by Douglas Ankney

The Supreme Court of Hawai’i agreed with a circuit court’s finding that a search warrant failed to satisfy the particularity requirement of article I, § 7 of the Hawai’i Constitution and vacated the judgment of the Intermediate Court of Appeals (“ICA”) that had reversed the decision of the circuit court.

Rodney Robert Rodrigues, Jr. was arrested in May 2018 after a search of his residence uncovered crystal methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, various pills and drug paraphernalia, three vehicles, and $993 in cash. Rodrigues’ residence was known as an “ohana unit,” which is a second dwelling unit built as a separate or an attached unit on a building site.

After being charged with multiple drug-related crimes, he filed a Motion to Suppress Evidence and for Return of Property (“Motion”). In the Motion, Rodrigues alleged that the warrant described the main residence with particularity but failed to mention the separate and distinct ohana unit that was actually searched.

After a hearing on the Motion, the circuit court issued Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law (“COL”). The court found that the unit occupied by Rodrigues was downstairs, while the main unit was upstairs and occupied by Rodrigues’ mother. Rodrigues rented the downstairs unit. It had its own kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and front-door lock. The main unit had new, light-colored siding and a white rooftop. The downstairs unit was green and did not share the white roof. The downstairs unit had its own entrance that was on a different street than the upstairs unit, and there was no inside door connecting the two units.

The officers searched only the downstairs unit even though the search warrant described only the upstairs unit. The warrant was based on the affidavit of Officer Marco Segobia after he used a confidential informant to conduct a controlled drug purchase at Rodrigues’ residence. Segobia testified at the suppression hearing and “acknowledged that the unit he described in his Affidavit was ‘not the unit [h]e searched.’” Segobia testified that in his affidavit he described the property as one residence because the Hawai’i property tax map described it as being a three-bedroom residence owned by Yolanda Rodrigues. Segobia concluded that the downstairs unit was a bedroom that looked like an extension of the residence.

However, during cross-examination, Segobia admitted that he was personal friends with Nick Ah Nee, who was the former occupant of the downstairs residence. Segobia admitted that he had been inside the residence visiting Ah Nee, and Ah Nee had told Segobia that, at the time,

Rodrigues lived upstairs in a separate unit. In the COL, the circuit court concluded that: “The Affidavit and the search warrant simply do not describe and therefore do not authorize the search of the separate downstairs studio unit.”

The court further concluded that Segobia either knew or should have known the residence was a multi-unit dwelling with more than one occupant based on the outer appearance of the residence and based on the fact he had been inside the building. These findings were unchallenged by the State.

The warrant was therefore invalid because it failed to describe with particularity the place to be searched. And, the search itself exceeded the scope of the warrant because the warrant did not authorize the search of the separate downstairs unit. The circuit court granted the Motion, and the State appealed. The ICA vacated the circuit court’s judgment. The ICA made its own finding that the residence was not a multi-unit dwelling and that the warrant authorized the search of the entire residence. The Hawai’i Supreme Court granted Rodrigues further review.

The Court observed that article I, § 7 of “[t]he Hawai’i Constitution provides that [t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches, seizures, and invasions of privacy shall not be violated; and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause ... and particularly describing the place to be searched.” And “[a] search warrant that authorizes the search of a ‘multiple-occupancy [dwelling] ... will usually be held invalid if it fails to describe the particular subunit to be searched with sufficient definiteness to preclude a search of one or more subunits indiscriminately.’” State v. Anderson, 935 P.2d 1007 (Haw. 1997). However, a search warrant is not defective for failing to particularly describe a subunit if the outward appearance of the building suggests it is a single-occupancy structure, and neither the affiant nor the investigating officers have reason to know the building is a multiple-occupancy structure. Id.

In the instant case, the Court determined the circuit court made findings based on the evidence that the officer knew or should have known that the residence was a multiple-occupancy dwelling due to the officer’s personal knowledge of the building’s interior coupled with the building’s outward appearance, and the affidavit and search warrant failed to particularly describe the downstairs unit that was searched. The Court concluded the ICA erred when it made contrary findings because a circuit court’s unchallenged findings are binding upon appellate courts. Kelly v. 1250 Oceanside Partners, 140 P.3d 985 (Haw. 2006).

Accordingly, the Court vacated the ICA’s judgment and remanded to the circuit court for further proceedings consistent with the Court’s opinion. See: State v. Rodrigues, 454 P.3d 428 (Haw. 2019). 

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State v. Rodrigues

 

 

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