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State v. Weldon

Supreme Court of Hawaii

June 28, 2019

STATE OF HAWAI'I, Respondent/Plaintiff-Appellant,
JAMES WELDON, also known as James William Weldon, Petitioner/Defendant-Appellee.


          Alan J.T. Komagome Jon N. Ikenaga, and Phyllis J. Hironaka, for petitioner/defendant-

          Brian R. Vincent for respondent/plaintiff- appellant



          NAKAYAMA, J.

         Article I, section 7 of the Hawai'i Constitution ensures 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[.]" This right is guaranteed to every person, without regard to the wealth of the individual or the place and time at which the individual is stopped. In this case, we reaffirm these fundamental principles and conclude that evidence discovered when the police illegally stopped and seized Petitioner/Defendant-Appellee James Weldon (Weldon) is inadmissible at trial.

         In the early morning of June 4, 2013, Weldon was approached by Honolulu Police Department (HPD) police officers while he was lying down on a concrete slab adjacent to an apartment complex on Waikîkî beach. Several police officers approached him intending to address whether certain items (namely, charcoal embers, cooked meat, and empty beer bottles) in the vicinity belonged to him. When an officer asked Weldon to provide his identification, he provided a Veterans Affairs (VA) medical card to the officer.

         After Weldon handed the medical card to the police officer, the officer noticed that Weldon was grasping something in his backpack, and ordered Weldon to take his hand out of the backpack. Weldon refused. A second officer then pulled the bag from Weldon. As the officer pulled the bag away, an eight-inch collapsible baton fell out of the backpack. Weldon grabbed the baton and pulled it up to the right side of his head as if to brandish it. The police officers eventually wrested control of the baton away from Weldon and arrested him. Respondent/Plaintiff-Appellant State of Hawai'i (the State) later charged Weldon with one count of carrying a deadly weapon in violation of Hawai'i Revised Statutes (HRS) § 134-51(a).

         The Circuit Court of the First Circuit (circuit court) granted Weldon's motion to suppress evidence of the baton. The State appealed, and the Intermediate Court of Appeals (ICA) vacated the circuit court's order granting Weldon's motion to suppress, concluding that the seizure was incident to a valid weapons search. Weldon filed an application for writ of certiorari.

         We reverse the ICA's judgment on appeal. On the facts of this case, the police lacked reasonable suspicion to seize Weldon while he was lying next to the beach in Waikîkî. Accordingly, the police violated Weldon's constitutional rights by approaching him, asking for identification, and seizing his backpack. Evidence from this unconstitutional search and seizure must be suppressed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Circuit Court Proceedings[1]

         On November 4, 2013, the State charged Weldon via an amended complaint with one count of carrying a deadly weapon in violation of HRS § 134-51(a).[2]

         On April 21, 2014, Weldon filed a Motion to Suppress Evidence (Motion to Suppress), and argued that the circuit court should suppress evidence and statements obtained from the warrantless search and seizure of Weldon. He argued that the police officers violated his constitutional rights under the United States Constitution and under article I, section 7 of the Hawai'i Constitution.[3] Weldon contended that prior to being detained and questioned by the police officers, Weldon "was not engaged in any overt violation of any criminal law." Weldon stated that under our case law, "[p]olice may not randomly 'encounter' individuals without an objective basis for suspecting them of misconduct and then place them in a coercive environment in order to develop reasonable suspicion to justify their detention." Thus, Weldon concluded that "it was only by virtue of the unlawful conduct of the police officers that the alleged deadly weapon became visible to the police officers," and "[a]ccordingly, all evidence seized subsequent to the detention and questioning of Mr. Weldon was tainted . . . and must be suppressed as fruits of the unlawful seizure."

         In its memorandum in opposition to Weldon's Motion to Suppress, the State argued that the police officers "had a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot." Specifically, the State contended:

The articulable facts in support of the Officers' belief stop [sic] include, but are not limited to, the observation of the alcoholic beverage containers, the charcoal residue of an extinguished fire, and discarded cooked meat that were in close proximity to the Defendant. If the Defendant had the alcoholic beverages and extinguished fire on the beach/beach access these would be in violation of the R.O.H. 40-1.2(a) and H.A.R. 13-13-24(4) as indicated supra. Officers also indicated that when they were talking to the Defendant he was sitting on the property break wall of 2801 [C]oconut Avenue. [The officer] confirmed that the Defendant did not live in the condos and could be possibly violating H.R.S. 708-815.[4] Officers had a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot and detained the Defendant to investigate but did not have probable cause to arrest the Defendant.

         The circuit court held a hearing on Weldon's Motion to Suppress on June 16, 2014.[5] Two HPD police officers, Officer Heyworth and Officer Wilson, testified.

         1. Officer Heyworth's Testimony

         Officer Heyworth testified that on June 4, 2013, he was assigned to patrol the Waikîkî area. He stated that part of the patrol area included the area around 2801 Coconut Avenue, which was "a particular hot spot, that block." He testified that when he arrived at the address around 7:00 a.m., he noticed "discarded embers from a fire, um, meat, cooked meat strewn everywhere, and, uh, beer bottles. [He] also noticed a male about five to six feet away from them, uh, laying down." He identified the male as Weldon. Officer Heyworth stated that he approached Weldon because he "wanted to address, uh, the items, see, you know, if they were his. So I just went up to him to talk to him." Upon approaching Weldon, Officer Heyworth noticed that Weldon was mumbling, slow to respond, and not necessarily cooperative when he was asked for his name and identification. Weldon eventually went into his backpack and provided him with a VA medical card. By this time, Officer Wilson had also arrived on the scene.

         Officer Heyworth explained that after handing over his VA medical card, Weldon continued to grasp something inside the backpack. While Officer Heyworth could not see what he was grasping, he ordered Weldon to remove his hand from the backpack.

         When Weldon refused to remove his hand from the backpack, Officer Heyworth stated that Officer Wilson attempted to grab the backpack away, and when he succeeded in pulling the bag away, a collapsible baton fell on the concrete area beside Weldon. Officer Heyworth testified that Weldon picked the baton up "and brought it to the right ear, his right ear, and brandished it in a manner as if to strike me or Officer Wilson." Recognizing the baton as a deadly weapon, Officer Heyworth told Weldon to drop the baton and that he was under arrest.

         On cross-examination, defense counsel asked Officer Heyworth why he had visited 2801 Coconut Avenue that morning. Officer Heyworth responded that there were general complaints from residents in the area about a high level of burglaries, so he was "making checks of the area." Officer Heyworth clarified that he was not responding to any specific complaint or call.

         Defense counsel then showed Officer Heyworth a photograph of the beach side of 2801 Coconut Avenue and asked him to indicate where he saw Weldon and where he saw the items that led him to further investigate Weldon. Officer Heyworth responded that Weldon may have been lying down towards the right side of the photograph, and that the "discarded embers from a fire" were not in the area depicted by the photograph. He testified that there was no "fire pit or barbecue grill" in the area. He further stated that at the time that he approached Weldon, Weldon was not drinking any beer or alcohol, was not eating any food, and was not using illicit drugs.

         Officer Heyworth testified that he approached Weldon to "address his welfare after observing those items." Defense counsel asked, "just to clarify, based on the observations of the beverage containers, the residue of the fire, and the disregarded meat, those were the - I guess the factors that led you to believe that there was some type of criminal activity going on?" Officer Heyworth responded, "I wanted to determine if they were -they were his." When asked whether he had ever questioned Weldon about whether the items were his, Officer Heyworth responded that "[t]he first thing I asked was his name I believe."

         2. Officer Wilson's Testimony

         Officer Wilson testified that when he arrived at 2801 Coconut Avenue, he initially saw Weldon, "several bottles, uh, a barbecue, and some meat that had been barbecued . . . [and] several backpacks." He stated that the glass bottles were empty, and "they appeared to be of the alcoholic type beverage and maybe some soda bottles." Officer Wilson testified that when he arrived on the scene, he initially observed Weldon lying down on the "concrete pad." Officer Wilson stated that "basically we approached, we asked for ID, tried to identify who this is." He explained that "we" referred to Officer Heyworth, himself, and a third officer who arrived shortly after.

         When Weldon failed to comply with Officer Heyworth's instruction that he "not go into his bag," Officer Wilson testified that he pulled the bag away from Weldon, and he "immediately recognized in [Weldon's] right hand a collapsible baton." Officer Wilson testified that Weldon "pulled his right hand back with the baton. At that time it extended."

         On cross-examination, when shown the same photograph of the area as shown to Officer Heyworth, Officer Wilson indicated that Weldon had been lying down in the middle of the photograph. He also stated that the charcoal type grill and the glass bottles were on Weldon's left, and the backpacks on Weldon's right.[6]When asked why he approached Weldon, Officer Wilson replied, "we were in the area making routine checks identifying people. Uh, we could do it - at that time we were doing it, uh, daily." Officer Wilson also stated that while Weldon was brandishing the baton, he was sitting up, and "[h]is legs were still forward flat on the concrete."

         On recross-examination, Officer Wilson testified that while tenants of the apartment building above the concrete wall could access a locked gate that led into the apartment, "you can't, um, stop access to the beach area." Officer Wilson stated that he was not sure whether there were signs on the wall denoting that the area was private property, or stating "keep off this wall." Officer Wilson further testified that no trespass case was created against Weldon.

         3. Circuit Court Order Granting Motion to Suppress

         During closing arguments, the State and defense counsel disputed whether the officers had reasonable suspicion to believe that Weldon was engaged in criminal activity. The State argued that the officers had individualized suspicion to approach Weldon to investigate possible criminal activity. Defense counsel countered that the officers lacked reasonable suspicion to approach Weldon because "there's nothing in evidence to show that Mr. Weldon is connected in time to these, you know, bottles or grill." Defense counsel also stated that when the officers approached Weldon, they did not inquire whether the items were his, but first asked for his identification. At the conclusion of the hearing, the circuit court orally granted Weldon's Motion to Suppress.

         The circuit court entered its written Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law and Order Granting Defendant's Motion to Suppress Evidence (Order Granting Motion to Suppress) on July 8, 2014. Therein, the circuit court made the following findings of fact and conclusions of law:

1. Police officers may stop and detain an individual if the officers have reasonable suspicion that the person stopped was engaged in criminal conduct.
2. Police officers, in that situation, must be able to point to specific articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, ...

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