There’s little doubt that Hawaii’s civil asset forfeiture program needs to be tightened up and operated better. Chief among the problems that need addressing: a stricter standard before property can be seized by law enforcement. A June 2018 state audit found, concerningly, that in 26 percent of civil asset forfeiture cases in fiscal year 2015, property was seized but corresponding criminal charges were never filed.
“So we can just go around and grab people’s money? I mean it’s crazy,” said state Sen. Karl Rhoads, the Senate’s Judiciary chairman, adding: “I don’t know how it is constitutional.”
He’s right, as are others who see potential for abuse in the state’s lax process. Efforts are now underway to improve the flawed system, which has been operating for nearly three decades without taut oversight and administrative rules, including a clear process on how to retrieve seized property. This is an asset forfeiture operation, the audit quantified, that reaped property forfeitures totalling nearly $11.6 million in fiscal years 2006-2015, and with funds not going to intended purposes.
House Bill 748 is advancing in the Legislature and poised for conference-committee wrangling. Post-audit, the Attorney General’s Office, which is charged with administering the asset forfeiture program, said it is working to shore up administrative rules. That might not be enough, though, to quell lingering distrust of overzealous seizures without criminal charges.