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Testimony — SB294, relating to property forfeiture

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The following is testimony that was submitted by the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii on Feb. 2, 2021, for consideration by the Hawaii Senate Committee on Judiciary.
_________________

To: Senate Committee on Judiciary
Senator Karl Rhoads, Chair
Senator Jarrett Keohokalole, Vice Chair

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

Re: SB294 — RELATING TO PROPERTY FORFEITURE

Comments Only

Dear Chair and Committee Members:

The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii would like to offer its comments on SB 294, which would significantly reform the practice of asset forfeiture in the state.

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 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 state’s low standard of proof for showing how the property is tied to a crime. 

In addition, Hawaii places the burden on innocent owners to prove they weren’t tied to the crime resulting in the forfeiture. 

The result is a state forfeiture program open to abuse.

As the Hawaii state auditor wrote in a June 2018 report, Hawaii’s asset-forfeiture program lacks clear rules and procedures, inadequately manages funds and is badly in need of greater transparency.2

The result is a system that is able to prey 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 would prevent any agency or group from having a financial interest in asset forfeiture.

Finally, there is one more reform that could improve the state asset forfeiture program. In order to maintain transparency 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.

Sincerely,

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/policing-for-profit-2nd-edition.pdf.
  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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