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Hawaii Supreme Court: Due Process Violation to Exclude Evidence of Victim’s BAC in Assault Case in Which Defendant Claims Self-Defense

by Matt Clarke

The Supreme Court of Hawaii held that a trial court erred by excluding evidence of the victim’s blood alcohol concentration (“BAC”) in a first-degree assault case where the defendant claimed self-defense.

During a family gathering involving a day of drinking, Peter David and his cousin, Santhony Albert, fought outside a relative’s apartment. David fatally stabbed Albert, claiming that he acted in self-defense.

David was charged with second-degree murder, but the jury convicted him of manslaughter. During the trial, evidence of Albert’s .252 BAC was introduced into evidence without objection from the State. That conviction was overturned on appeal. 

At his retrial, David’s self-defense claim rested on the fact that Albert was drunk during the altercation and that Albert has a history of being violent and aggressive when drunk. To help establish Albert’s belligerent behavior while drunk, defense counsel called upon a police officer who was verbally and physically attacked by Albert while drunk to testify.  

The court allowed evidence of the presence of alcohol in Albert’s blood, but it barred the introduction of Albert’s actual BAC without a defense expert witness to explain the BAC figure to the jury, reasoning “alcohol has different effects on different people.” Prior to the forensic pathologist testifying to the presence of alcohol in Albert’s blood, David moved the court to reconsider its decision to bar Albert’s BAC. The court denied the motion, stating that “without any anchoring testimony to explain the number, it is in fact speculative” and that the jury could “even be confused” without expert testimony “to explain the meaning of the number.”

The jury convicted David of first-degree assault. The Intermediate Court of Appeals (“ICA”) affirmed, and he appealed to the state Supreme Court, arguing that the trial court erred by excluding the BAC evidence at his retrial.

The Court rejected the lower courts’ insistence on the need for an expert to explain the meaning of Albert’s BAC in order for it to be admitted into evidence.

The Court explained that Albert’s .252 BAC was highly probative to David’s defense, which had opened and closed with the claim that Albert was drunk and violent, causing David to fear for his life. His defense “pivoted on evidence that Albert became aggressive after drinking a lot of alcohol,” the Court stated. To support his defense, David testified about the events leading up to the fatal encounter and how Albert attacked him. To further support his defense, he called on a police officer who had been attacked by Albert while drunk in a separate incident. The Court concluded that there was a sufficient basis to admit Albert’s BAC. See Swilley v. State, 295 So.3d 362 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2020) (reasoning that the jury could hear BAC evidence where the defendant claiming self-defense testified that the complainant was aggressive when drinking and smelled like alcohol during the incident).

The Court stated that the BAC evidence provided “an objective, scientific basis for the jury to evaluate the extent and degree of Albert’s intoxication.” According to the Court, the BAC evidence was critical in helping to prove essential facts central to David’s defense: “It would have (1) aided the jury’s determination as to who was more likely the aggressor; (2) assisted the jury in understanding David’s state of mind and his perception of imminent harm; and (3) helped corroborate David’s view that Albert was acting violently and erratically while intoxicated, causing David to believe lethal force was necessary to protect himself.” See State v. Baker, 623 N.E.2d 672 (Ohio Ct. App. 1993) (holding that the trial court erred in excluding victim’s BAC because it was “important to the issue of self-defense, relevant specifically to the issue of who was more likely the aggressor in the incident”). Consequently, the Court determined that Albert’s BAC had high probative value far exceeding witness testimony that Albert had been drinking and describing him as “drunk.”

Turning to the issue of the need for “anchoring” expert testimony, the Court rejected any need for such testimony. It stated that BAC “evidence requires little explanation,” noting that the national standard for driving while impaired is a BAC of .08. See Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S. 141 (2013). The mass media routinely repeats that number, and so, it “is possibly the most recognizable number in criminal law,” the Court opined and added that the average adult in the U.S. understands that a BAC of .08 is regarded as the threshold level at which a person’s ability to safely drive a vehicle becomes impaired. Similarly, it’s common knowledge that the higher the BAC, the more impaired a person becomes, the Court stated. It also noted that courts have long recognized that it’s within the common understanding of jurors that alcohol can lead to violent behavior. See Byrd v. State, 123 So. 867 (Miss. 1929); Lyons Farms Tavern, Inc. v. Mun. Bd. Of Alcoholic Beverage Control, 261 A.2d 345 (N.J. 1970).

HRE Rule 702 provides that a person with “specialized knowledge” may testify if doing so “will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” Such specialized knowledge imparts “knowledge not possessed by the average trier of fact who lacks the expert’s skill, experience, training, or education.” State v. McDonnell, 409 P.3d 684 (Haw. 2017). However, when the issue in question is within the common knowledge of jurors, “expert testimony is unnecessary.” Brown v. Clark Equip. Co., 618 P.2d 267 (Haw. 1980). Thus, the Court announced: “We conclude that alcohol and its association with violence fall into this category.” And it ruled that expert testimony on what Albert’s BAC meant was unnecessary.

The Court then addressed David’s argument that excluding Albert’s BAC violated his due process rights to present a complete defense; it agreed with him. The Court stated that the right to present a complete defense is vital to due process. State v. Williams, 465 P.3d 1053 (Haw. 2020). In State v. Abion, 478 P.3d 270 (Haw. 2020), the Hawaii Supreme Court explained that when a defendant asserts a recognized defense to justify or excuse otherwise criminal conduct and there’s some credible evidence to support it, “the issue is one of fact that must be submitted to the jury, and it is reversible error for the court to reject evidence which, if admitted, would present an essential factual issue for the trier of fact.”

The Court stated that David’s defense hinged on David’s credibility regarding Albert’s intoxication and violent behavior, and the BAC evidence was essential to bolstering his credibility. Hence, the Court held that “there is a reasonable possibility that excluding the BAC evidence affected the trial’s outcome.” See State v. DeLeon, 319 P.3d 382 (Haw. 2014). It further held that the trial court’s rejection of admissible evidence that was probative to material factual issues regarding David’s defense violated his right to present a complete defense.

Accordingly, the Court vacated the ICA’s judgment and the trial court’s judgment of conviction and sentence and remanded to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. See: State v. David, 494 P.3d 1202 (Haw. 2021). 

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