Civil asset forfeiture is a seizure program used in all 50 states to confiscate financial and physical assets owned by suspected criminals. A handful of states require a criminal conviction before property can be seized, but most states, including Hawaii, simply require police to demonstrate probable cause.
Police in Hawaii reportedly seized more than $11 million worth of private property between 2006 and 2015. No criminal charges were filed in over a quarter of those cases, according to a report from the state auditor’s office. Seized property is put up for auction, and proceeds from sales is divided between the police agency that seized the property, the county prosecutor, and the state’s forfeiture fund.
Hawaii’s asset forfeiture program has been in place for over three decades without any administrative rules. The Institute for Justice gave the state a D- for its civil forfeiture program, calling it one of the worst in the country. Critics of the program say it gives police an incentive to unlawfully seize property in order to fund law enforcement agencies.
“Civil asset forfeiture is intended to stop criminal operations, not pad police department budgets. It should be an unstable funding source, so we shouldn’t be relying upon it,” said Mandy Fernandes, the policy director of the Hawaii chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
State lawmakers sought to reform the asset forfeiture program in July 2019 with the passing of H.B. 748, which would restrict the ability of law enforcement to seize property and sell it at auction. Among its proposed rules, the bill would require seized property to only be auctioned after the owner was convicted.
Hawaii Gov. David Ige vetoed bill, saying it was too restrictive and that “sufficient safeguards” existed under current laws. He did, however, call on the attorney general to issue clearer administrative rules for the state’s forfeiture program by the end of 2019.
Under the attorney general’s new rules, county prosecutors will be required to specify the offenses that justify the confiscation of property and to petition the attorney general for approval. The new rules also spell out a process for property owners and their lawyers to reclaim seized property if they believe their property was wrongfully taken.
Retrieving confiscated property in Hawaii takes on average 18 months and usually requires the help of a lawyer. A forfeiture case is heard before a circuit court judge with a decision by a jury, unless the property owner waives that right. If the property owner successfully refutes the seizure, the property is released immediately, assuming the seizing agency doesn’t appeal the decision.
Hawaii lawmakers plan to modify and reintroduce H.B. 748 in some form during the next legislative session.
South Florida Civil Asset Forfeiture Attorney
If you are involved in a civil asset forfeiture case, then you should hire an attorney. Contact Brian Silber, P.A. to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of South Florida’s most experienced civil asset forfeiture attorneys.