Group gives state a D+ for asset seizure program
A program in Hawaii that allows law enforcement officers to seize property that they suspect is related to the commission of a crime has scored low marks for falling short on transparency and accountability.
Mahalo for reading the Honolulu Star-Advertiser!
You're reading a premium story. Read the full story with our Print & Digital Subscription.
Already a subscriber? Log in now to continue reading this story.
A program in Hawaii that allows law enforcement officers to seize property that they suspect is related to the commission of a crime, without getting a conviction, this week has scored low marks from the Institute of Justice, a national civil liberties law firm, for falling short on transparency and accountability.
Overall, Hawaii received a D+ for its civil asset forfeiture program, which is administered by the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office. In subcategories, the state also received an F on its accounting for how seized cash and property proceeds are later spent by law enforcement agencies, and for not conducting routine program audits.
“Hawaii’s failure to account for spending from forfeiture funds is particularly troubling,” Jennifer McDonald, a co-author of the report, said in a statement this week. “With forfeiture, law enforcement agencies can keep some or all of the proceeds from the property they take. This enables them to generate and spend funds outside of the normal
appropriations process, which undermines the legislature’s power of the purse.”
McDonald said that at a bare minimum, agencies should have to publicly report how they spend the cash and proceeds from property that the state auctions off.
The Attorney General’s Office does generate a report annually for the Legislature that details how its office spends proceeds, but it doesn’t include how county police departments and prosecutors spend their share of the funds.
Under Hawaii’s law, the Attorney General’s Office keeps 50 percent of proceeds, which is deposited into the Criminal Forfeiture Fund, while distributing
25 percent to the law enforcement agency that seized the property and
25 percent to the prosecutor’s office.
During the 2016 fiscal year, the Attorney General’s Office spent $301,712 on trial advocacy training, office equipment, publication of legal notices, storage of forfeited assets, auction expenses and salaries for the program staff.
The program, which is currently being audited for the first time in over two decades, saw a major dip this past fiscal year in how much revenue it brought in. During the 2016 fiscal year, law enforcement agencies seized $381,838 worth of cash and property — a
55 percent drop from how much was seized in the prior year, according to reports to the Legislature.
Hawaii is one of many states that scored low marks in the Institute of Justice rankings. Only 19 states scored a C- or higher. Vermont received the highest marks, with an overall rating of B+, followed by Oregon, which received a B-. Nineteen states received an F.
Josh Wisch, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office’s office, noted Tuesday that the Legislature asked for an audit of the program, which the office did not oppose. The results are pending.
Local law enforcement agencies have defended the program as a way to disrupt major crime outfits — such as drug smugglers and illegal gambling operations — as well as a way to deter crime by making it unprofitable. But civil asset forfeiture programs have been criticized by civil liberties groups for violating due process and amounting to legalized theft.
Conviction isn’t required for the seizure of property, and once taken it is up to the owner to essentially prove that cash wasn’t drug money or a car wasn’t used during a theft. There are also conflict-of-interest concerns in states like Hawaii, where law enforcement agencies get to keep the cash or proceeds from the auctions, leading critics to coin the phrase “policing for profit.”
Last year, Hawaii legislators sidelined bills that sought reforms, including a measure that would require a conviction in order to seize property, opting to audit the program first.
Rep. Joy San Buenaventura (D, Pahoa-Kalapana), who introduced legislation last year to reform the program, as well as the resolution ordering the audit, said Tuesday that she wants to see the results of the audit first, but is considering measures to rein in the program again this year. One measure could remove the financial benefit of the program to law enforcement agencies.
“I want to remove that incentive,” said San Buenaventura, who is also a defense attorney. “It is supposed to be a deterrent for crime and shouldn’t be an incentive for the prosecutors to make money.”