HAWAII (Criminal Law) – Hawai’i Supreme Court Holds Pre-Interview Questions Violated Defendant’s Right Against Self Incrimination

Recently, the Hawai’i Supreme Court waded into the thicket of custodial interrogation. Like the United States Supreme Court, the Hawai’i Court has required Miranda warnings before custodial interrogation of a suspect may begin, pursuant to the Article I, Section 10 right against self-incrimination and the Article I, Section 5 right to due process in the state constitution. In the present case, the defendant, Pulumata’ala Eli, was accused of attempted second degree murder. He was arrested, and taken to the police station. The detective responsible for interviewing Eli invited him to tell his side of the story. Eli agreed, and was taken into an interrogation room where he signed a form waiving his Miranda rights and gave a statement to the detective. At trial, Eli argued that the initial invitation, made before his Miranda rights were given, constituted custodial interrogation that was illegal unless Eli had made a knowing, intelligent, and voluntary waiver of his right to remain silent and to have an attorney present. Because no waiver was secured until after the detective asked Eli if he wanted to tell his side of the story, the defense claimed that the detective illegal questioned Eli, and that any subsequent statements were tainted by that illegality. The trial court disagreed, and held that the detective’s questioning was merely preliminary, and therefore was not custodial interrogation.

In State v. Eli, the Hawai’i Supreme Court rejected the trial court’s framing of the issue. Whether the questioning could be characterized as “preliminary” was, according to the court, irrelevant. The only question was whether custodial interrogation had occurred. The court kept the Miranda analysis grounded in these two questions, whether the defendant was in custody and whether the defendant was being interrogated, and declined to seriously inquire into whether the detective was required to record the interview. The first question, whether Eli was in custody, was straightforward: Eli was under arrest, at a police station, and had been deprived of freedom. Under Hawai’i case law, the court did not inquire whether Eli would have felt that he could leave, it looked at whether he had been objectively deprived of freedom.

Having established that Eli was in custody at the time of the questioning, the court then turned to whether the questioning constituted interrogation. Under Hawai’i law, interrogation occurs whenever the questioner should have known that their statements were reasonably likely to elicit an incriminating response from the defendant. These statements can be exculpatory or inculpatory, what matters is that the response could have some bearing on relevant issues in the case. Here, when the detective asked Eli to tell his side of the story, the court held that he should have known that this questioning would lead Eli to give an incriminating response. Therefore, the questioning was interrogation.

What is perhaps most interesting about the case is not that the court found that Eli was subject to custodial interrogation, but that it also excluded the statements Eli made once he had waived his Miranda rights. The court held that these statements were tainted by the original illegality. The court reasoned that because the Mirandized statements followed immediately after the illegal ones, and there were no intervening events that might have attenuated their taint, that the detective had exploited the original illegal questioning to influence Eli once he had been given his Miranda warnings. To the court, this case presented an illegal bifurcated interrogation, an end-run around the rights protected by the Miranda warning, and therefore statements made by Eli should have been excluded. The end result was a new trial for Eli.

–Nathan Pittman

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Rebecca Green, College of William & Mary Law School

Scott Graves, National Center for State Courts