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Tighten rules for asset forfeiture

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When law enforcement agents are able to seize vehicles, cash and other property from citizens without first obtaining a conviction or even filing a criminal charge, it reflects just how low the threshold is for seizures under state’s civil asset forfeiture program.

The program — under which law enforcement agencies can seize property suspected of being connected to criminal activity — is wide open to abuse and, therefore, in pressing need of reform.

Enough questionable cases have come to light to warrant changes. State lawmakers will need to take bold steps to tighten Hawaii’s overly broad laws that some local defense attorneys describe as “legalized theft.”

Hawaii’s civil forfeiture laws rank among the worst in the country, according to the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that gave the state a D-minus rating. The ranking was based on the low standard of proof needed to seize property and the difficulty involved in retrieving the property if the owner is innocent. In fact, the presumption leans in the wrong direction: guilty until proven innocent.

Even more troubling is the state’s hefty financial stake in forfeiture proceeds: 25 percent going to police, 25 percent to prosecuting attorneys and 50 percent to the attorney general, the institute said.

Under that setup, financial incentive weighs heavily against the agencies’ prompt release of the seized goods to their rightful owners. During the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years, the seizures amounted to $2 million-plus in cash, cars, electronics and other property.

Under state law, property owners have two options in recovering seized items. Within 30 days of receiving a notice of forfeiture, they can file a petition with the attorney general’s office making their case for why they should get back the property. If that fails, owners can challenge the seizure in court.

However, a review of hundreds of civil forfeiture cases by Star-Advertiser writer Sophie Cocke found that in a great majority of cases in which money and property were seized under Hawaii laws, the cost of challenging the seizure in court outweighed the value of what was confiscated. It essentially becomes a no-win situation for property owners because fighting for their items in court just doesn’t pencil out.

It has evolved into a system unfairly weighted on the side of law enforcement at the expense of citizens’ due-process rights — one that needs greater balance.

Cocke’s article cited numerous questionable cases, including one in which a man’s 2000 Honda Accord was seized because police believed it was driven to Makapuu Lighthouse where an SUV had been broken into. The Honda owner was in prison so could not have committed the SUV crime, but police suspected his daughter’s boyfriend; the car was never returned and the boyfriend was never charged. The man got $1,620 for his $5,000 car when it was auctioned off by the Attorney General’s Office.

The case illustrates how dubious the reasoning can be in some of the forfeiture cases, and the need to tighten the state’s loose laws.

Just last session, lawmakers proposed a measure that would forbid property from being forfeited unless there is a conviction. However, the measure failed, having had formidable opposition from county police departments and prosecutor’s offices.

Honolulu Prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro, in testimony, told lawmakers that “current forfeiture laws are used to immediately and effectively disrupt the infrastructure of criminal activity.” He also claimed that Hawaii hadn’t suffered from the abuses reported in other states.

During the coming session, lawmakers will have to champion reform of civil forfeitures that forces law enforcement officers to seize property based on much more than just loose connections to criminal activity. After all, innocent until proven guilty should apply to one’s property as well.

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  • Here is the real truth. “When law enforcement agents are able to seize vehicles, cash and other property from citizens without first obtaining a conviction or even filing a criminal charge, it reflects absolute corruption at Law Enforcement and our Elected Bureaucrats.

    Both are dipping their beak in “Free Money” at the expense of the innocent. This is no better than the 8th little world the Nei is. And as we have seen, ranked as the least intelligent state in the entire world. A well deserved and earned title.

    Fix this corruption process in a heartbeat by requiring the same legal standards as warrants and absolute, factual evidence before anything is taken. Yes, this means Law Enforcement will actually have to do their jobs, break a sweat, get out of their aircon cars and start real work. This is their job.

    The fact Law Enforcement and our obviously prosecutor’s office, both agencies riddled with corruption from top to bottom are fighting change proves their overwhelming corruption. Might be time to clean house, fire them all, start fresh. Let them all find real jobs.

    Sad to say just another day in the little 10th world of Hawaii Nei.

  • Isn’t there something in the US Constitution about fundamental right of all citizens to due process and against search and seizure of property?

    This practice demonstrates the slippery slope that can happen when exceptions are made to these basic civil rights.

    • Doesn’t apply when corrupt law enforcement and elected bureaucrats get fat and lazy from all the “Free Money” they steal from innocent civilians. Oh they will spin it a thousand ways trying to hide their corruption. Fortunately everyone can see right through all their likes, just how utterly incompetent the are. No better than highway thieves.

      Would love to see their reaction when the same happens to them. Great Karma.

    • Yes, that is in the Constitution. Unfortunately, the Feds also have a similar confiscation law. If I remember from reading about this when these laws were passed and challenged in court, the ruling was that the “property was guilty” of the crime. And since property in and of itself has no rights, there is no problem with the confiscation.

      This just confirms that the US Constitution has no army to protect it – it is up to us. These confiscation laws are basically unconstitutional and immoral, and we must work to get rid of them. Now, if the state needs to impound property until proper process (a guilty verdict) allows them to confiscate it, and any other outcome dictates return of the property, then fine.

  • “So police officers are literally guilty until proven innocent, whereas the constitution clearly states we are innocent until proven guilty.” Stated SHOPO president Tenari Maafala to HNL Police Commission on Sept 7, 2016.

    Oh, so cops should be protected by the constitution but CITIZENS should not????

  • Way overdue. That said I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for meaningful reform. You don’t think the police, prosecutors, or attorney general are going to give up easy $$$$$$$ without a fight.

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