Conviction Tossed Over Miranda Rights Violation
by Rose Bouboushian, Court House News, June 23, 2016
(CN) — A man convicted of assaulting a Honolulu driver during a Halloween 2011 fracas is entitled to a new trial because a police officer failed to advise him of his Miranda rights, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled.
Geoffrey Ross testified that a dozen or more people had run in front of his car in Honolulu to watch a fist fight when one "ran headlong" into his car.
Thinking Ross had hit someone, the crowd swarmed and broke his back windshield.
Ross testified that while this was going on, someone jumped onto his car, stomped on the front windshield, and then, after hopping off the car, grabbed his neck through his open, driver's side window and punched him several times in the face.
Gregory Kazanas was identified by a witness as the assailant, was arrested, and was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment of hand injuries.
As recounted in the court documents, Kazanas was accompanied to Queen's Medical Center by officer Christy-Lynn Avilla, who claims she told him he was not allowed to talk about the case, but failed to inform him that he had the right to remain silent.
Hoping to calm Kazanas down with small talk, Avilla asked how his Halloween went.
"If people didn't upset me, I wouldn't have to punch them," Kazanas said.
Avilla later testified she told Kazanas his words "could be used against him in a court of law."
Nevertheless, Kazanas added: "If you didn't catch me now for this, you would've caught me for something else later" — a statement the circuit court ultimately excluded from trial.
Kazanas filed a motion in limine to exclude from trial what he said to Avilla, as well as evidence of a 2007 third-degree assault conviction, and a 2006 family abuse conviction stemming from an altercation with an ex-girlfriend in which he repeatedly struck her in the face with a cane.
At trial, the court admitted Kazanas' statement about punching people and convicted him of unauthorized entry into a motor vehicle, while dropping a property damage charge.
Kazanas was sentenced to five years' probation, with a special condition of 90 days in prison.
He timely appealed, arguing he was not advised of his Miranda rights.
The state's Intermediate Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction in 2014 but on Tuesday, the Hawaii Supreme Court vacated Kazanas' conviction, noting that this month marks the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Miranda v. Arizona decision.
"We hold that, although the officer testified that she did not intend her small talk to provoke an incriminating response, she 'should have known that her words were reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response from the person in custody,'" Judge Sabrina McKenna wrote for the divided five-judge panel.
Avilla "knew how Kazanas' Halloween went," McKenna wrote. "Thus, her question was reasonably likely to elicit from Kazanas details about the alleged crime. In other words, the police officer subjected Kazanas, a person in custody pursuant to an arrest, to interrogation; accordingly, Kazanas was entitled to be advised of his Miranda rights before the small talk conversation began. As Kazanas' right against self-incrimination was violated, his statement should have been suppressed at trial."
The judge later added: "We hold that the circuit court abused its discretion in admitting evidence of the 2006 prior bad acts, as only the 2007 incident was necessary to counter Kazanas' testimony, and the probative value of the 2006 acts was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice."
The court remanded the case for a new trial.
Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney's Office spokesman Dave Koga said "it is not the practice of the prosecutor's office to issue comment on court decisions."
"At this point, no decision has been made on how we will proceed," Koga added.
PDF: Hawaii v Kazanas