When Marilou Chin fell asleep on 5 March 2011, she didn’t suspect anything bad would happen. Her son, Brandon, took her Mercy Mountaineer so he could head over to meet a friend in Pearl City near Honolulu in Hawaii.
Brandon was arrested later that night for burglary. A witness claimed to have seen Brandon breaking into Olivia’s Lounge, the bar where he was going to meet his friend. Brandon himself claimed, however, he was simply trying to use the bathroom. Police reportedly found a crowbar in the SUV and lock-picking equipment in the door to the bar.
Brandon was arrested and kept overnight; the next day, he was released. Brandon was never charged with any crime, but that did not stop the police from seizing the SUV. They were able to do so using a process known as civil asset forfeiture, a legal procedure where law enforcement agencies may take possession of an individual’s property if it is suspected of being involved in a crime.
No criminal conviction is required for property to be taken. Additionally, police need only demonstrate that “a preponderance of the evidence” suggests the property is connected to a crime to be able to seize it. This is far below the “beyond a reasonable doubt” required in criminal cases.
In Hawaii, law enforcement agencies currently receive 100 percent of the proceeds of forfeitures: 50 percent goes to the attorney general while the prosecuting attorney and the police receive 25 percent each. Agencies use the proceeds of forfeitures to fund their own operations, leading to accusations of “policing for profit.”
Marilou was a provider of care to the elderly and used her vehicle as transport for her work. “I almost lost my business because I had no transportation,” she said. “It’s not fair that they took the car for nothing.”
Although she attempted to have her vehicle returned to her, the state’s attorney general’s office determined that there was, in fact, enough evidence to seize Marilou’s car permanently. They valued her car at $8,000 and auctioned it off.
There have been several attempted to reform civil asset forfeiture law in Hawaii before. In 2016, then-Senator Will Espero (D-‘Ewa) argued reform was needed. “It’s a basic policy call on whether one believes that the government has the right to take a citizen’s property or belongings without a conviction,” he said at the time. “From my perspective, they should not.”
Last week, HB 748, which would reform civil asset forfeiture in the Aloha State, passed through the legislature and is now been sent to Governor David Ige for approval. The bill would change the law so that asset forfeiture would only apply in the case of felonies where the property owners themselves have been convicted of a crime.
Describing civil asset forfeiture as “government-sponsored theft,” the bill goes on to state, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and the purpose of this Act is to end civil asset forfeiture without conviction, which undermines the fair administration of justice and the rule of law.”
If it becomes law, HB 748 will come into effect on July 1, 2019.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.