State v. Vliet

Decision Date08 September 1999
Docket NumberNo. 22000.,22000.
PartiesSTATE of Hawai`i, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. James Lincoln VLIET, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtHawaii Supreme Court

983 P.2d 189
91 Haw.

STATE of Hawai`i, Plaintiff-Appellee,
James Lincoln VLIET, Defendant-Appellant

No. 22000.

Supreme Court of Hawai`i.

September 8, 1999.

983 P.2d 190
Jon N. Ikenaga, Deputy Public Defender, on the briefs, for defendant-appellant

Caroline M. Mee, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney, on the briefs, for plaintiff-appellee.


Opinion of the Court by MOON, C.J.

On September 29, 1998, following a non-jury trial in the district court of the first circuit, defendant-appellant James Lincoln Vliet was found guilty of: (1) one count of Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicating Liquor (DUI), in violation of Hawai`i Revised Statutes (HRS) § 291-4(a)(1) (1993 & Supp. 1998); and (2) one count of Vehicle Entering Stop or Yield Intersection, in violation of HRS § 291C-63(b) (1993). On appeal, Vliet argues that his DUI conviction should be reversed because: (1) his constitutional rights to present a defense and to the assistance of counsel were violated inasmuch as the district court refused to allow him to present argument on the motion for judgment of acquittal; (2) there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction; and (3) the district court abused its discretion by allowing the arresting officer to testify to a legal conclusion. Inasmuch as each of Vliet's contentions lacks merit, we affirm his conviction and sentence.


The following facts were adduced from the testimony of the only two witnesses at trial: the arresting officer for the prosecution and Vliet, testifying in his own behalf.

On May 18, 1998, at approximately 3:00 a.m., Honolulu Police Department (HPD) Officer Malcolm Uehara (Officer Uehara), while on duty, observed Vliet's vehicle heading south on Māhukona Street near Ala Moana Shopping Center. According to Officer Uehara, who was driving west on Kona Street in his subsidized vehicle, Vliet's vehicle approached the intersection at Kona and Māhukona Streets and, without stopping at the stop sign, made a right turn. Officer Uehara activated his lights and siren and pulled Vliet over to the right side of Kona Street.

Officer Uehara approached Vliet's vehicle and asked Vliet "for his paperwork and his driver's license." The only occupants of the vehicle were Vliet, who was in the driver's seat, and an unidentified male in the passenger seat. While conversing with Vliet, Officer Uehara "could smell alcohol, a slight odor of [an] alcoholic-type beverage coming from his breath." Officer Uehara also observed that Vliet's eyes were "red and glassy[, and h]e also had a stare, kine`a like a blank stare on his face."

Officer Uehara testified that Vliet was "quickly able to produce [his] registration and . . . insurance." Vliet indicated, however, that he did not have a license, prompting Officer Uehara to request an identification (ID) card. Thereafter, Vliet produced a card bearing a "picture of Christ." After Officer Uehara remarked to Vliet that this was not his ID card, Vliet resumed looking through his wallet. At some point, Officer Uehara pointed out Vliet's state ID card for him, after which Vliet "produced it."

Based on his observations, Officer Uehara requested Vliet to perform a field sobriety

983 P.2d 191
test (FST). Vliet agreed. Upon exiting his vehicle, Vliet left the door open, blocking traffic, and Officer Uehara had to ask Vliet to close it. Officer Uehara observed that, "while walking away [from the vehicle], [Vliet] kine`a took slow deliberate steps like[] . . . he was really concentrating in [sic] walking."

Officer Uehara testified that he had been a police officer for ten years, had made about 300 DUI arrests, and had received about a week of training in administering FSTs. Prior to administering the FST, Officer Uehara asked Vliet standard questions about his medical history, at which time Vliet disclosed that he was an epileptic and had taken medication for his condition earlier that day. Officer Uehara then proceeded to administer the FST, which consists of three phases — the horizontal gaze nystagmus, the "walk-and-turn," and the "one-leg raise."

Vliet failed all three phases of the FST. With respect to the horizontal gaze nystagmus phase, Officer Uehara stated that, during the test, he observed that Vliet "was swaying back and forth." Additionally, "[Vliet's] eyes would twitch while tracking, while going back and forth, and then on the 45-degree angle, his eyes had that twitching again." Officer Uehara evaluated Vliet's performance as poor.

As for the "walk-and-turn" phase, Officer Uehara stated that he first explained the test to Vliet and then demonstrated it to him. After asking Officer Uehara a few questions, Vliet indicated that he understood the directions. In the middle of the test, however, Vliet indicated that he had a question, at which point Officer Uehara explained that he could not answer questions while Vliet was taking the test. Vliet started the test over again and according to Officer Uehara, performed poorly. Officer Uehara explained that "[Vliet] swayed in the middle, kine`a lost his balance, and he took ten steps on the return[,]" even though he was instructed to take nine steps.

With respect to the "one-leg raise" phase, Officer Uehara testified that, after explaining, but prior to demonstrating, the test to Vliet, he instructed Vliet not to begin the test until told to do so. Despite this instruction, Vliet started "doing the test" during Officer Uehara's demonstration. As for the test itself, Officer Uehara stated that Vliet again performed poorly. Specifically, although Vliet was instructed to keep his arms to his side, Vliet had his arms one to two feet away from his body and "used mostly his left hand as balance." Vliet also "sway[ed] ... in trying to keep his balance."

After Vliet failed to perform adequately on the FST, Officer Uehara arrested him for DUI. Officer Uehara testified that, upon being arrested, Vliet became uncooperative: "He made his body stiff, he wouldn't move to my directions, he was yelling, saying stuff[]... to the effect that you don't know what you're doing, I did the test well." Over the objection of defense counsel, Officer Uehara was permitted to state his opinion regarding Vliet's state of sobriety on the night in question and whether he believed that Vliet was able to operate his vehicle safely that night.

At the close of Officer Uehara's testimony, the prosecution rested, prompting the following pertinent exchange:

[Prosecutor]: Thank you, your Honor, the State rest[s].
THE COURT: Motion for judgment of acquittal is denied.
[Defense counsel]: May I make argument?
THE COURT: Not really. The argument wouldn't have any probative value, and I just heard all of the evidence. It's only been an hour and fifteen minutes of testimony, so taking the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, motion is denied.

We note that, prior to Vliet's testimony, defense counsel introduced into evidence, by stipulation, a letter from Queen's Medical Center confirming that Vliet had a prescription for Gabapentin, also known as Neurontin, an anticonvulsant drug used to treat epilepsy. The letter further explained that:

Nervous system effects are the most frequently reported side effects. Somnolence is the most frequently reported adverse effect of gabapentin, occurring in about 19% of patients; the incidence and severity of somnolence appears to be dose related.
983 P.2d 192
Dizziness or ataxia has been reported in about 17% or 13%, respectively; the incidence of ataxia also appears to be dose related. Fatigue reportedly occurs in 11% of patients, nystagmus in about 8%, tremor in about 7%, nervousness in 2.4%, dysarthria in 2.4%, amnesia in 2.2%, depression in 1.8%, abnormal thinking in 1.7%, twitching in 1.3%, and abnormal coordination in 1.1% of patients receiving gabapentin as adjunctive therapy.
. . . .

Vliet's version of the events on the night in question differed in significant respects from that of Officer Uehara. According to Vliet, on the night in question, he was giving someone whom he had just met a ride to the 7-Eleven Store at the corner of Kapi`olani Boulevard and Atkinson Drive. While driving eastbound on Kapiolani Boulevard, he noticed a police officer pull in behind him from Keeaumoku Street. Vliet testified that, "I was approaching the stop sign and the officer started coming up behind me. I put on my blinker and I made a right turn [onto Māhukona Street]. At that moment, the police officer[']s sirens started flashing." Claiming that "[t]here was no place I could safely pull on the side[,]" Vliet stated that he proceeded through the next stop sign and "stopped when I came to a clear space."

Vliet claimed that Officer Uehara smelled the odor of alcohol because his passenger was drunk. Vliet indicated that he had picked up his passenger in the Hickam area and that he thought that his passenger, who offered him $5.00 for a ride to town, had just come out of a bar at the time they met. Vliet admitted, however, that he had consumed two beers earlier in the evening, one at about 5:00 p.m. and another at about 9:30 p.m.

Vliet testified that he had taken his Neurontin at about 11:00 p.m. According to Vliet, the Neurontin generally "makes me like sleepy, really fatigue, sometimes I see double vision. It gives me like muscle spasms in my arms and sometimes in my eyes, twitching in my eyes." Vliet claimed that the Neurontin also "throws off the coordination." Vliet stated that he was "kinda deaf in the left ear" and that Officer Uehara "was kinda mumbling and stuff" which is why he had trouble understanding what Officer Uehara had said and started the one-leg raise test before being instructed to do so.

After hearing closing arguments, the district court ruled as follows:

THE COURT: The Court is ready to rule. Mr. Vliet[,] I find that the State has proven beyond a reasonable doubt that you had consumed and were under the

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