Honolulu Councilwoman Carol Fukunaga wants to crack down on people who abandon their cars on Oahu, but city officials say her proposed solution wouldn’t work.

Fukunaga wants the city to fine those who’ve abandoned a car $1,000 the next time they try to register a vehicle. The fines would be in addition to the $160 ticket issued by police for abandoned cars. Many of those tickets are never paid.

Through a free program, the city currently offers to tow and dispose of unwanted cars and relieve the owners of outstanding registration fees. But people continue to ditch their old cars in public places, blighting neighborhoods and frustrating officials.

State and local law enforcement agencies issued 5,603 tickets for abandoned cars on Oahu alone last year through Dec. 20, according to data from the Hawaii State Judiciary.

A Department of Customer Services employee marks abandoned vehicles in Waianae. City officials say they can’t track people who ditch their vehicles. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Towing companies contracted by the city removed more than 3,000 abandoned and derelict vehicles from Oahu roadways last year, an increase from 1,971 last year, according to the city’s Department of Customer Services.

Under a measure Fukunaga has introduced, anyone who abandons a car would not be able to register a new car or renew the registration for another car without first paying a fine. 

“The main objective is to reduce the number of abandoned vehicles by imposing strict enough deterrents,” said Fukunaga.

But officials from the Department of Customer Services, which oversees motor vehicle registration for cars on Oahu, said an antiquated database and other issues would make it impossible to actually levy the fines.

The problem, officials say, is that when someone walks into a satellite city hall to register a new car or renew a registration, the city has no way to determine if that person is guilty of having abandoned a car.

The department relies on a state-owned database of registered cars, according to Abul Hassan, Honolulu’s motor vehicle administrator. The database includes information such as license plates and vehicle identification numbers, as well as the names and addresses of registered owners. But the names aren’t associated with other forms of identification, like credit history information or social security numbers, he said.

A traffic ticket on the seat of an abandoned car. Many go unpaid. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

“We have a problem with identifying the correct individual, especially if individuals have common names,” said Randy Leong, Department of Customer Services deputy director. “There could be 10 … John Smiths coming in to register their car but one of them has abandoned their vehicle and we wouldn’t be able to definitively identify which John Smith it is.

The database can’t be updated because the employee who understood its programming code “has long retired, there’s no new talent that actually writes code for this sort of database,” Hassan said.

The state Department of Transportation owns the database and has no plans to modernize it, a process that could cost millions of dollars, according to DOT spokesman Tim Sakahara.

Leong said the state-owned motor vehicle registration database the city uses is separate from the database containing drivers’ license information.

The Hawaii State Judiciary, which is responsible for adjudicating traffic violations, runs into the same issue when it tries to track people who abandoned cars, according to Jan Kagehiro, the judiciary’s director of communications and community relations.

The registered car owner gets a letter from the court and if the owner doesn’t pay the fine or get it dismissed, court officials send the owner’s name, address and car information to a collection agency. Kagehiro said she was unable to say what the collection agency does to pursue the fines owed to the state.

Just 19 percent of the 9,406 tickets issued for abandoned vehicles in 2017 and the first half of 2018 resulted in fines being paid. Another 40 percent of the cases went to the collection agency and 14 percent are still “active,” meaning the court system was either unable to locate the registered car owner or the case has yet to be adjudicated.

The remaining cases were dismissed.

Yet another issue arises when the person listed as the registered car owner in the database does not actually own the car.

People who buy cars often fail to change the vehicle title to their name. If they then abandon the car and the city finds it on the side of the road, it can only go after the registered owner – sometimes the car seller.

The seller would be saddled with paying the fine. 

“We just can’t see, from a department standpoint, how we can hold an unoffending person liable,” Leong told the council’s Budget Committee during a November meeting when Fukunaga’s bill was discussed. 

The measure must clear another Budget Committee hearing before it can move to the full council for possible final approval.

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