To: House Committee on Judiciary
Rep. Karl Rhoads, Chair
Rep. Joy A. San Buenaventura, Vice Chair
From: Grassroot Institute of Hawaii President Keli’i Akina, Ph.D.
RE: HB 1559 — RELATING TO PROPERTY FORFEITURE
Dear Chair and Committee Members:
The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii would like to offer its comments on HB 1559, which would prohibit civil asset forfeiture by reason of the commission of a covered offense, to the extent of the property owner’s interest, unless the covered offense is a felony for which the property owner has been convicted.
Last year, the Institute for Justice gave Hawaii a score of D- for its civil asset forfeiture laws. This was found by comparing standards of proof, the burden on innocent owners, the profit incentive, and reporting requirements. Part of the reason for Hawaii’s low ranking was because of the poor protections for innocent third-party property owners, and the low bar to forfeit, with no conviction required.
On average, law enforcement agencies in Hawaii seize $1.2 million worth of property per year. In total, $17,244,129 has been seized since the year 2000 in Hawaii.
If police suspect property was involved in a crime, they can take it, sell it, and direct the proceeds towards their budgets. They need not prove anyone committed a crime, or even arrest anyone to take property away. This gives police departments an incentive to take property because in Hawaii, 100% of the forfeiture proceeds go directly to law enforcement.
Bill HB 1559 attempts to fix this by requiring a conviction before property can be taken through civil asset forfeiture. Law enforcement agencies would still be able to prosecute criminals and forfeit their possessions – but the rights of innocent property owners would be protected.
However, this may not fix the problem completely, as there are two points to consider.
First, civil asset forfeiture proceeds in Hawaii would continue to go towards law enforcement agencies. A better solution may be to place forfeiture revenue in a neutral fund, like the state’s general fund.
Second, the bill does not protect Hawaii from the Federal forfeiture law. A study by the Institute for Justice  has shown that when states make forfeiture harder and less profitable, state and local law enforcement agencies tend to hand over forfeiture prosecutions to the federal government, which return up to 80% of the proceeds to local law enforcement.
Although these points are important to consider, HB 1559 does provide a commendable first step towards securing and protecting the property rights of innocent Hawaii’s citizens.