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Testimony on SB294, SD1, relating to property forfeiture

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The following testimony was submitted by the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii on March 12, 2021, for consideration by the Hawaii Senate Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs.
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To: House Committee on Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs
Rep. Mark M. Nakashima, Chair
Rep. Scot Z. Matayoshi, Vice Chair

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

Re: SB294 SD1 — RELATING TO PROPERTY FORFEITURE

Comments Only

Dear Chair and Committee Members:

The Grassroot Institute of Hawaii would like to offer its comments on SB294, 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 and able to prey on innocent property owners.

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 audit found that in 26% of asset forfeiture cases closed during fiscal 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 might 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 would take 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 seeking to eliminate 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.
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[1] Dick M. Carpenter II, et al., “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture, 2nd Edition,” Institute
for Justice, November 2015.
[2]  Audit of the Department of the Attorney General’s Asset Forfeiture Program,” Office of the Auditor, State of Hawaii, June 2018.

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