Editorial: Crimes grow with illegal gambling
In most U.S. states, on some level, legalized gambling is widely viewed as a harmless form of entertainment. Not so in Hawaii.
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In most U.S. states, on some level, legalized gambling is widely viewed as a harmless form of entertainment. Not so in Hawaii. Here, there are no casinos, no racetracks, no lotteries, and no sports wagering. Not even bingo. Only social games, like poker, are allowed — and they’re tethered to several restrictions.
While Hawaii’s stance means missing out on some wholesome fun and fundraising opportunities, such as casino night charity events, the prohibition helps shield the islands from the vast underbelly of vice tied to some gambling operations.
This week, federal officials announced charges against 15 defendants who authorities say were involved in illegal gambling operations in at least two Oahu residences. U.S. Attorney for the District of Hawaii Kenji Price said an ongoing investigation pegs about 80 properties — in residential and commercial areas — as possibly involved in gambling activity.
In addition to facing charges linked to a game room operation, one defendant is charged with robbing at gunpoint a patron who had just won about $4,000 on an electronic video gambling machine. Another is also charged with methamphetamine, cocaine and marijuana trafficking, possessing a firearm to further drug trafficking.
The welcome effort to topple the scheme has been conducted jointly by the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Department of Homeland Security, and the Honolulu Police Department — with HPD’s Chief Susan Ballard rightly advising against understating gambling’s dark side.
“The crime that we’re seeing, the guns, the stabbing, it’s always, for the most part, 95% of the time, is traced back to either illegal gambling or drug activity,” Ballard said. Based on that assessment, public safety alone is reason enough for Hawaii to refrain from loosening state law.
From a visitor’s perspective, given Hawaii’s status as a magnet for leisure tourism, some sorts of gambling, casinos included, hold potential to be a good fit here. A casino could generate wager-related entertainment while raking in much-needed revenue for the state.
Elsewhere, though, this sort of economic growth strategy has resulted in upticks in gambling addiction and the draining of wallets of low-income people attracted to longshot odds. In Hawaii, where at least half of all households struggle daily with the state’s high cost-of-living-issues, state leaders are wise to resist opting for such easy money.
Due in part to the state’s determination to steer clear of the gaming industry, arrests linked to underground operations elicit little surprise. In the latest local-federal law enforcement effort, homes in Pearl City and Waipahu were raided, resulting in seizure of about 60 gaming machines and $150,000 in cash related to illegal gambling. Criminal elements apparently operating in family neighborhoods is certainly of high concern.
Also, Price said his office planned to issue a “Notice of Illegal Use of Property and Acknowledgement of Forfeiture Warning” to property owners of the suspected gambling houses, as property being used for illegal gambling activity may be seized through criminal or civil asset forfeiture — and property owners could lose all rights and interest in the property.
Such a tactic can be an effective tool in discouraging would-be illegal gambling businesses. However, it should be noted that Hawaii’s civil asset forfeiture program is long overdue for reforms. For example, according to a state audit, 26% of cases in fiscal year 2015 resulted in property seized but corresponding criminal charges never filed.
More must be done, by county and state agencies as well as government leaders, to rein in overzealous seizure allowed by the state’s civil asset forfeiture program. Still, there’s much to commend when it comes to the ongoing law enforcement action to guard against illegal gaming and related social ills.