Grassroot Institute testifies on asset forfeiture reform

Grassroot Institute of Hawaii – HB2069 Testimony

February 13, 2020
2:05 p.m.
Hawaii State Capitol
Conference Room 325

To: House Committee on Judiciary
Rep. Chris Lee, Chair
Rep. Joy A. San Buenaventura, Vice Chair

From: Grassroot Institute of Hawaii
Joe Kent, Executive Vice President


Comments Only

Dear Chair and Committee Members:

The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii would like to offer its comments on House Bill 2069, which would prohibit civil asset forfeiture unless the covered offense is a felony for which the property owner has been convicted.

The state of civil asset forfeiture in Hawaii has been the subject of criticism and concern. Thus, we commend the legislature for continuing to address these problems and pressing for much needed reforms.

In a recent survey of civil asset forfeiture nationwide by the Institute of Justice, Hawaii earned a D-minus and the dubious distinction of having some of the worst forfeiture laws in the country.[1] Singled out for criticism was the low standard of proof required for the government to show the property is tied to a crime. In addition, the burden is placed on innocent owners to prove they weren’t tied to the crime resulting in the forfeiture. 

The result of these laws is a state forfeiture program open to abuse. As the Hawaii state auditor wrote in a June 2018 report on the asset forfeiture program, the program lacks clear rules and procedures, inadequately manages funds and is badly in need of greater transparency.[2] More important, it is reasonable to believe that the current system preys on innocent property owners.

The audit found that in 26% of asset forfeiture cases closed during fiscal year 2015, property was forfeited without a corresponding criminal charge. In another 4% of cases, the property was forfeited even though the charge was dismissed. Of those whose property was forfeited, very few petitioned for remission or mitigation. The state auditor speculated that most people may not know petition is an option because of the lack of transparency surrounding the forfeiture program.

By introducing a higher standard for forfeiture, this bill takes an important step in addressing many of the concerns raised in the audit. It is shocking that citizens can lose their property without being convicted — or even charged with a crime.

This bill also deserves praise for eliminating incentives that can arise from the practice of asset forfeiture. By directing the proceeds from the forfeiture program to the general fund, this bill prevents any agency or group to have a financial interest in asset forfeiture.

Finally, there is one more reform that could improve the state asset forfeiture program. In order to maintain the transparency of the program and boost public confidence, we suggest that the bill include language that would require more detailed reporting on the forfeiture program, especially regarding financial management and case data for specific property dispositions.
Thank you for the opportunity to submit our testimony.


Joe Kent
Executive Vice President
Grassroot Institute of Hawaii

[1]  Dick M. Carpenter II, , et al. “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture, 2nd Edition,” Institute for Justice, November 2015. https://ij.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/
[2] “Audit of the Department of the Attorney General’s Asset Forfeiture Program,” Office of the Auditor, State of Hawaii, June 2018, http://files.hawaii.gov/auditor/Reports/2018/18-09.pdf.

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