State Representative Joy San Buenaventura is taking on civil asset forfeiture laws in Hawaii. Buenaventura has been waiting nearly two years for the audit, which will help legislators move forward on possible changes to the state’s laws.
Hawaii has one of the worst civil asset forfeiture laws in the nation, according to the Institute for Justice, a non-profit libertarian, civil liberties, and public interest law firm that often takes on high-profile cases pro-bono.
The Institute for Justice gives Hawaii a D+ on its civil asset forfeiture laws report card. The report card mainly evaluates the degree to which the state’s laws require law enforcement agencies to record key details about properties they seize, as well as related forfeiture and criminal cases. Without these kinds of records, officials are unable to responsibly manage property and properly evaluate forfeiture programs.
Currently, Hawaii state laws do not require law enforcement agencies to record the date the property was seized, where the property was seized, the crime for which a suspect was charged (if any), whether or not the property was transferred to federal ownership, the reason for transfer, and even the value of the forfeited property.
The audit was approved by Hawaii Legislature in 2016, but it hasn’t happened yet. Although it was supposed to have taken place in 2017, a shakeup in the State Auditor’s Office as well as turnover and other internal policy changes have pushed back the released of the analysis, which will also delay reforms. Buenaventura is not sitting still while the auditor’s office struggles to keep up.
“It just seems low on the auditor’s priority list,” she said. “I intend to reintroduce my bill so that they know the need for the audit. I’m hoping that one or the other gets done.” It’s oddly fitting that Buenaventura is waiting on an answer and receiving little information from the government agency responsible; innocent victims of civil asset forfeiture are often in the same situation.
Law enforcement agencies in Hawaii have earned millions of dollars over the years under these laws, raking in just under $400,000 in the 2015-2016 fiscal year. Negative press about the laws has been strong and ongoing. In January of 2016, a woman lost her Mercury Mountaineer after her son took the keys and got arrested in 2011 for suspected burglary. The son was never officially charged with a crime, but the SUV was seized regardless. The woman was an elder care provider who used the vehicle to transport her wheelchair-bound clients.
This was not an isolated incident – similar stories have sparked outrage across the state. The tide seems to be turning on civil asset forfeiture in Hawaii, but it’s still unclear as to when the government will start to move forward.
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