State high court vacates sentence

Ruling that a court “abused its discretion” by denying a Wailuku man’s request to have his sentencing delayed so he could be represented by a lawyer of his choice, the state Supreme Court has ordered that the case be sent back to 2nd Circuit Court for resentencing.

In the opinion for publication issued April 29, the Hawaii Supreme Court vacated the 10-year prison term that was ordered in January 2011 for Stephen Cramer Jr., 27. When he is resentenced, Cramer can argue to be placed on probation as a first-time drug offender, the court said.

The decision was handed down nearly five months after oral arguments were heard Dec. 6 by the Supreme Court, which convened on Maui for the first time since the mid-1800s. Nearly 500 students from seven Maui high schools, along with lawyers and community members, filled the Baldwin High School auditorium for the court session.

Deputy Prosecutor Artemio Baxa argued that then-2nd Circuit Judge Shackley Raffetto had a responsibility to ensure the “orderly and timely administration of justice” in denying Cramer’s request for a three-week delay in sentencing.

But attorney Hayden Aluli, who had been hired to represent Cramer, argued that the judge didn’t have good reason to deny Cramer’s request for a three-week delay in sentencing so Aluli could prepare to represent him.

“We agree that Cramer was denied his right to privately retained counsel of his choice . . . ,” said the Supreme court opinion written by Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald. “We also hold that the circuit court abused its discretion in denying the motion for substitution of counsel and continuance of the hearing. Specifically, the circuit court relied only on the timeliness of the request, and the record does not reflect that the circuit court properly balanced Cramer’s right to counsel of his choice against countervailing government interests.”

The opinion said the prosecution took no position on Cramer’s request.

Cramer was arrested on Sept. 19, 2007, when police executed search warrants for him, his car and his apartment, finding a quantity of crystal methamphetamine, drug paraphernalia and marijuana.

He was admitted into the Maui Drug Court program for treatment and supervision in February 2009 and could have had the charges dismissed if he had successfully completed the program. But Cramer’s participation in Drug Court was terminated in September 2010 after the prosecution said he hadn’t complied with conditions of the program. He was convicted of the drug charges Nov. 4, 2010.

A deputy public defender had been appointed to represent Cramer.

But on his original sentencing date of Jan. 6, 2011, Aluli also appeared as Cramer’s privately hired attorney and asked to be allowed to replace the court-appointed attorney if the sentencing would be delayed for three weeks so he could properly prepare. Judge Raffetto denied Aluli’s request as untimely after a deputy prosecutor said the state was ready to proceed with sentencing.

Cramer’s sentencing turned out to be delayed for five days when questions arose over whether he was eligible to be sentenced to probation under a law that applies to first-time nonviolent offenders.

On Jan. 11, 2011, Raffetto found Cramer ineligible for probation and ordered concurrent prison terms of 10 years for second-degree promotion of a dangerous drug, five years for possessing drug paraphernalia and 30 days for third-degree promotion of a detrimental drug.

After Cramer appealed the sentence, the state Intermediate Court of Appeals ruled that the judge didn’t abuse his discretion and there was no violation of Cramer’s constitutional right to be represented by an attorney of his choice.

Cramer then asked the Supreme Court to review the appeals court order.

In a news release last week, Aluli welcomed the decision and praised the Supreme Court’s “efforts in providing access to its proceedings to the Maui community by convening at Baldwin High School.”

Baxa said Wednesday that although he did his best to uphold the prosecution’s position, “I am a man who respects the rule of law.”

“The Hawaii Supreme Court has spoken,” Baxa said. “I respect their decision.”

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at