No Conviction, All Profit. Any enterprise able to get merchandise for free and sell it for 100 percent profit is an enterprise you might want to invest in.

Exactly such an enterprise exists in Hawaii, but would-be investors will have to take their capital elsewhere, as the entrepreneurs in question are the police departments on Oahu, Kauai, Maui and Hawaii Island, county prosecutors and the state Office of the Attorney General.

As was noted in a report last week by the Institute for Justice, Hawaii allows police to seize and in some cases keep personal property belonging to those only suspected of criminal activity. The institute gave Hawaii an integrity grade of D- for its civil forfeiture laws.

The Honolulu Police Department's downtown headquarters.
The Honolulu Police Department’s downtown headquarters. PF Bentley/Civil Beat/2014

The owner need not be actually convicted of a crime for the police to retain things like cars, homes — even businesses. As is the case in a number of other states, Hawaii police need only show through a “preponderance of evidence” that the property is tied to a crime.

Owners who assert their innocence should expect a guilty-until-proven-innocent treatment: The burden of proof to show they weren’t involved in the crime is theirs.

The police are free to then sell whatever property they retain, splitting the profits as follows: 25 percent to the Police Department, 25 percent to prosecuting attorneys and the remainder to the attorney general. Records going back to 2000 show that those entities were able to split an average of $1.23 million each year in reported forfeiture proceeds.

The annual take grew to a high of nearly $1.8 million in 2010 before falling back to about one-third that amount in 2011 and 2012. But by 2013, the most recent year for which full data are available, it had gone back up to $868,376.

This information caught the eye of at least two lawmakers when Civil Beat reported it last week — state Sen. Will Espero, vice president of the Senate, and Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, a House freshman and an experienced attorney from Hawaii Island.

Espero promised to make civil forfeiture reform one of a dozen law enforcement bills he plans to file for the 2016 session; San Buenaventura has already drafted a reform bill and plans a resolution requesting a full audit of the program.

Espero immediately promised to make civil forfeiture reform one of about a dozen law enforcement bills he plans to file for the 2016 session. The following day, San Buenaventura, a member of both the Judiciary and Public Safety committees, went one step further, saying she had already drafted a reform bill, spoken with the state auditor and planned to file a resolution requesting a full audit of the civil forfeiture program.

Hawaii didn’t establish a uniform civil forfeiture law until 1988, when the Legislature passed it at the request of a coalition of law enforcement agencies, according to a 1995 state auditor evaluation of the program. The law was subsequently amended multiple times, but in the 1995 evaluation, the auditor’s office said forfeiture was an “unproven” law enforcement weapon.

Saying no studies could be found proving the program’s efficacy as a crime deterrent, the auditor recommended repeal of the criminal forfeiture fund. No subsequent audits of the program are posted on the Office of the Auditor General Reports and Financial Audits pages; San Buenaventura said Friday that’s because the program has never been formally audited.

She said she’s already begun pushing for a full review in conversation with the auditor general, adding that she expects strong opposition to any changes from the program’s current beneficiaries.

With the legislative session now two months away, the resolve of San Buenaventura and Espero represents a promising start for reform that would address an issue of basic morality, as Espero described it. “If there’s not a conviction why would you allow the government to take and sell someone’s property?” he asked.

It’s a question that we hope concerns their colleagues, as well as Gov. David Ige, as the work of the 2016 session begins to take shape.

A United Airlines jet takes flight.
A United Airlines jet takes flight. Wikimedia Commons

Fly The Costly Skies? United Airlines has a near monopoly on air service between Honolulu and Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands — and it shows.

United merged with Continental in 2010. But since United took responsibility for the Continental routes serving the areas in question 3½ years ago, the “level of service provided by United … has never met the level of Continental, which operated in this region for over 40 years,” Guam Attorney General Elizabeth Barrett-Anderson and CNMI AG Edward Manibusan wrote in a letter to the United CEO, according to reports from the Guam Daily Post and other Pacific news outlets.

The new CEO, Ocar Muñoz, asked for customer input on how services could be improved. Barrett-Anderson and Manibusan gave him an earful.

Not only do passengers pay exorbitant fares for all of the routes, they face frequent flight delays and cancellations, thanks in part to the older fleet United used to replace newer Continental planes.

The attorneys general cited the elimination of free inflight meals and free entertainment for the eight-hour flight to Honolulu and baggage fees of $70 for a second piece of checked luggage — items that are complimentary on United flights from those islands to Tokyo, a trip roughly equal in duration.

Between them, Guam and CNMI are home to only about 216,000 people. It would be easy for Muñoz and United to push their concerns to the back of the cabin or delay action in favor of more visible and high-impact public relations efforts on the U.S. mainland, Asia or other more populous regions the airline serves.

But we’re hoping that Muñoz meant it when he sought input.

Hawaii ought to have a great deal to say in this matter, both regarding the way its residents are treated en route to Guam and CNMI and the challenges facing residents of those islands traveling to Hawaii.

“Continental was deeply rooted in this region and invested in its people. This all changed after the merger. We understood there would be changes, but the changes have been very disappointing,” said the attorneys.

United, now appropriately prodded, needs to show it is better than that. The Hawaii Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs and Attorney General Doug Chin need to join with the attorneys general in seeking redress on pricing and service issues raised in the letter.

Hawaii ought to have a great deal to say in this matter, both regarding the way its residents are treated as they travel to and from those islands and the challenges facing Guam and CNMI residents traveling to Hawaii.

While it has yet to respond publicly to the letter, United offered a positive sign last week, when the airline announced that Guam is one of five destinations whose United Club lounges will be renovated starting in 2016 as part of $100 million the airline is pouring into lounge renovations globally. Guam joins much larger tourist destinations in Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale on the priority list.

It’s a small step forward, but potentially symbolic. Given that Muñoz is recovering from a heart attack suffered last month, we encourage United’s interim leadership to take seriously the input he solicited, and take further steps to improve service.

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