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.
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.
Last week, Hawaii’s state auditor released a report outlining systematic mismanagement of the state’s civil asset forfeiture program between 2005 and 2017. The audit revealed that the Office of the Attorney General, which oversees the program, improperly managed funds, did not correctly account for seized property, and did not allocate $2 million required to go to drug prevention.
As State Auditor Les Kondo explained, “With the bar to seize and forfeit private property in Hawaii so low, the department must manage the program with a heightened degree of transparency and accountability. … We found that not to be the case.”
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.