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Oral Argument Before Hawaii Supreme Court–No. SCWC-18-0000454

No. SCWC-18-0000454, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019, 10 a.m.

STATE OF HAWAI I, Respondent/Plaintiff-Appellee, vs. CELESTE BAKER, Petitioner/Defendant-Appellant.
 The above-captioned case has been set for argument on the merits at:

Waipahu High School Gymnasium
94-1211 Farrington Highway
Waipahu, HI 96797

Attorney for petitioner:

Taryn R. Tomasa, Deputy Public Defender

Attorney for respondent:

Chad Kumagai, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney

NOTE: Order accepting Application for Writ of Certiorari, filed 08/30/19.

COURT: Recktenwald, C.J., Nakayama, McKenna, Pollack, and Wilson, JJ.

[ Listen to the entire audio recording in mp3 format ]

Brief Description:

On October 26, 2017, Celeste Baker was issued a traffic citation for leaving the scene of an accident involving vehicle damage, in violation of Hawai i Revised Statutes (HRS) § 291C-13. At trial, the complaining witness testified that she was involved in a traffic accident while driving eastbound on Kamehameha Hwy. near the bus stop at Blaisdell Park. After both drivers pulled their cars to the side of the road, the complaining witness stated, Baker would not provide the required information and they got into an argument. They agreed to move their vehicles to another location because they were holding up traffic. The complaining witness testified that Baker never appeared at the agreed-upon location.

Baker testified that her car did not hit the complaining witness’s vehicle, that they agreed to meet at a location different than the complaining witness had testified to, and that the complaining witness did not appear at the agreed-upon location. Baker also testified that she called the police after the complaining witness did not appear at that location.

Officer Brandon Kam testified that he responded to a call made by Baker in the area of Pearlridge regarding the incident–which had occurred about 25 minutes earlier. Baker reported to him that she was being accused of colliding with another vehicle and that the occupants of the other vehicle were being hostile to her and had asked for money. Officer Kam related that he then received an update from dispatch about a “fled type case” and ceased talking to Baker so that he could get further clarification. Officer Kam also testified that he did not observe any damage to Baker’s vehicle.

At the conclusion of trial, Baker was found guilty. On appeal Baker argued that there was insufficient evidence to sustain the conviction because she pulled over immediately, reported the incident to the police, and provided the required information to Officer Kam. Baker also contended that the charge against her was flawed because it did not allege the statutory requirement that “Every such stop shall be made without obstructing traffic more than is necessary.” This omission, argued Baker, resulted in the State failing to provide adequate notice of the charge, failing to sufficiently allege an adequate charge, and causing prejudice to her because of an inability to prepare a defense. The State’s evidence also failed to prove this omitted allegation, contended Baker. For all these reasons, Baker concluded that the conviction must be vacated.

The Intermediate Court of Appeals (ICA) held that the charge was not deficient because the State did not need to prove as an element that “Baker knew the stop was made without obstructing traffic more than is necessary.’” The ICA reasoned that the phrase was, instead, an “explanatory clause.” The ICA also determined that there was sufficient evidence to support the conviction.

On certiorari review, Baker contends that the ICA erred in its rulings, and that even if the ICA was correct, the charge should be dismissed as a de minimis infraction under HRS § 702-236, based on plain error.