Hawai‘i Supreme Court Vacates Conviction of Petitioner Suffering Long-Term Effects of Substance Use

Above: The Supreme Court of Hawai‘i — Image Source: Ililani News

The Supreme Court of Hawai‘i vacated and remanded the conviction of Ramoncito Abion on December 29, 2020. The court ruled that expert testimony regarding long-term effects of Abion’s substance use should have been allowed at his original trial.

In January 2016, Abion hit a woman on the back of the head with a hammer. He was described as displaying “bizarre behavior” at the time. Abion was arrested and charged with second-degree assault. A panel of three medical examiners deemed him fit for trial.

But, one of these examiners opined that Abion suffered from methamphetamine psychosis and because of this “may be entitled to a lack of penal responsibility defense.” He explained that “protracted use of methamphetamines causes permanent brain damage at a cellular level, its effects apparent long after an individual has been free of the drug” and that while Abion was not using methamphetamines on the day of the offense or the preceding several days, his past use caused him to suffer from paranoid psychosis, and his “commerce with reality was hugely impaired at the time of his assaultive conduct.”

Before trial, the state attempted to block that expert from testifying, arguing that “self-induced intoxication precluded a lack of penal responsibility defense.” The trial court agreed with the state and blocked the testimony, citing State v. Young, 93 Hawai‘i 224, 999 P.2d 230 (2000), which the trial court interpreted as prohibiting drug-induced mental illness as a defense on the ground that it was self-induced intoxication.

Abion was convicted of second-degree assault. He appealed, asserting that the expert testimony should have been allowed at trial.

The Supreme Court of Hawai‘i agreed with Abion and found that Young did not in fact decide whether a defendant may present “evidence of a permanent mental illness caused by substance use.” The court found that the self-induced exception applies only “when a defendant is under the temporary influence of voluntarily ingested substances at the time of an act.” Because the expert explained that Abion was not under the influence of any substances during the offense but instead suffered from long-term effects of substance use, the court found that the expert’s testimony should have been allowed. By excluding it, the court continued, Abion’s “constitutional right to present a complete defense was violated.” The court therefore vacated Abion’s conviction and remanded for further proceedings.

Key words: substance use, mental illness, psychosis, Hawai‘i

Citation: State v. Abion, 148 Hawai‘i 445

This post is the 42nd post as part of an ongoing Center for Law, Brain & Behavior (CLBB) series tracking the latest developments in law and neuroscience cases. To see previous posts about recent cases, see the full case archive on the CLBB website. To see updates on legal scholarship, see the Neurolaw News, hosted by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience. This project is made possible through support of the Dana Foundation.

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