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Hawaii v. DeCastro

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Defendant stopped to write down the license plate number of a police office he saw driving recklessly in pursuit of another vehicle. The police officer approached Defendant’s vehicle and asked for his license and registration. Defendant called 911 and the operator told Defendant that he could leave. When he left the officer, shortly joined by others chased Defendant. Defendant eventually pulled over and was arrested for resisting an order to stop a motor vehicle. At trial, Defendant argued that he lacked the requisite intent to commit the crime because the 911 operator had given him permission to leave and he reasonably believed he had legal authorization to leave. The district court disagreed and convicted Defendant, finding that a reasonable person in Defendant’s position would not have believed he had legal authorization to leave the scene. Defendant appealed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    Under Hawaii law, if a defendant relied on an official but incorrect statement of the law defining a crime, ignorance or mistake of law may be used as an affirmative defense to the crime.

    Facts.

    Robert DeCastro (Defendant) was driving his employee, Wesley Damas (Damas), back to a warehouse when Defendant saw Officer Derek Rodrigues (Rodrigues) driving recklessly in pursuit of another driver. Rodrigues pulled the driver over, and Defendant pulled over behind Rodrigues’s police car to take down the license-plate number. Rodrigues approached the van and, according to Defendant, began speaking aggressively to Defendant and Damas. After taking Defendant’s license and registration, Rodrigues told Defendant to wait in the van while Rodrigues went back to his police car. Defendant called 911 and reported that Rodrigues was harassing him, and asked if he could leave and return to the warehouse. The 911 operator told Defendant that he could leave, and instructed him to call back when he returned to the warehouse. Defendant drove away, and Rodrigues gave chase in his police car. Additional police cars joined the chase after Rodrigues called for backup, and Defendant finally pulled over. Defendant was subsequently arrested for resisting an order to stop a motor vehicle.

    Issue.

    Whether a defendant may use ignorance or mistake of law as an affirmative defense to a crime if the defendant relied on an official but incorrect statement of the law defining the crime.

    Held.

    Yes. Defendant’s conviction is affirmed. Under Hawaii law, if a defendant relied on an official but incorrect statement of the law defining a crime, ignorance or mistake of law may be used as an affirmative defense to the crime.

    Discussion.

    If a defendant could claim ignorance or mistake of law as an affirmative defense to prosecution, this would encourage and reward willful ignorance and result in widespread pleas of ignorance that would often be impossible for a judge or jury to resolve. Therefore, as a general rule, ignorance or mistake of law is not an affirmative defense, even if a criminal defendant relied on the erroneous advice of another. In Hawaii, however, there is a limited exception that permits mistake of law to be used as an affirmative defense if the defendant acted in reasonable reliance upon an official but erroneous statement of the law in an official interpretation provided by a public officer who is responsible for interpreting, administering, or enforcing the law that defines the crime at issue. In this case, Defendant asserts that the exception applies to him because he reasonably relied on the 911 operator’s legal authority to give him permission to leave the scene and return to his warehouse. However, Defendant is incorrect. First, a 911 operator is not the public officer charged with responsibility for interpreting, administering, or enforcing the law that criminalizes the resistance of an order to stop a motor vehicle. Second, even if the 911 operator’s advice constituted a statement of the law given in an administrative grant of permission, the advice was not an official statement of the law as required by the exception. Thus, the mistake-of-law exception does not apply.


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