Every July, as the deadline arrives to either sign or veto bills in Hawaii, there seems to be a bit more suspense than one might expect when the same political party controls the Legislature and the governor’s office.
The good news is that Gov. David Ige is no rubber stamp for his fellow Democrats. The bad news is that some of his vetoes are ill-advised.
The latest example is his rejection of a measure to reform Hawaii’s civil asset forfeiture program. House Bill 748 passed both houses of the Legislature unanimously, and with good reason.
Last year a state audit found that the Attorney General’s Office, which administers the program, has failed to account for property obtained by forfeiture, inadequately managed program funds and failed to allocate some $2 million for drug prevention as required by law.
Even worse, the report showed that in more than a quarter of the cases in 2015, property was forfeited even though no one was ever even charged with a crime, much less convicted. In another 4% of cases, property was forfeited even though the underlying charge was dismissed.
HB 748 would’ve allowed law enforcement to still seize property. However, authorities would have needed to wait until there was a felony conviction of the owner before selling the property.
In 2015, Civil Beat reported that Hawaii authorities were seizing an average of $1.2 million in property every year, taking things like cars, boats, guns and even family homes.
Those at risk of losing property are not eligible for help from a public defender, but rather must pay for their own legal representation — if they can afford it.
State Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, the bill’s sponsor, became aware of problems created by civil asset forfeiture in the 1980s when she began to hear of cases near her Big Island home where items valuable to families were being confiscated.
She said that she knew of cases where cars were seized because of alleged wrongdoing by one member of the family, leaving the rest of the family unable to commute to work and school, and of power generators taken from people who lived off the grid.
Civil asset forfeiture cases are separate from the underlying criminal cases. That means the burden of proof is lower; all county prosecutors need to show is probable cause to bring an asset forfeiture case.
It also means those at risk of losing their property are not eligible for help from a public defender, but rather must pay for their own legal representation — if they can afford it.
“It’s just being used to enrich the prosecutors and the police department, who get a portion of the profits,” San Buenaventura told Civil Beat in February. “The poor are further impoverished.”
She said the inability to pay for a lawyer explains the audit finding that, from 2006 to 2015, 85% of forfeiture cases went uncontested.
In his veto rationale, Ige made no mention of the state audit. He said “Civil asset forfeiture is an effective and critical law enforcement tool that prevents the economic benefits of committing a crime from outweighing consequential criminal penalties and punishment” and added, “safeguards presently exist in Hawaii’s asset forfeiture statutes that prevent the abuses cited in the bill.”
Clearly Ige was listening to people other than legislators when considering what to do with HB 748. We can guess that this included representatives of law enforcement agencies that financially benefit from forfeitures, although we can’t know for sure since the governor’s office doesn’t provide a public accounting of who Ige meets with.
The governor was likely lobbied by both sides on this issue and simply made a bad decision.
It’s enough to make you wonder what Ige was doing during the legislative session, when legislators were taking public testimony and deciding where they stand on issues such as this.
While his cabinet members weighed in throughout the process, if Ige himself had a problem with the bill, he could have gotten involved more directly and helped to craft a reform measure that he would sign.
Would this be interfering with the legislative process? Mayors, governors and presidents do it all the time. They don’t have to personally show up at legislative hearings to get their points across about what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Instead, Ige interfered with the legislative process after the fact by vetoing an obviously needed civil asset reform bill that had passed unanimously.
REPORTING ON HAWAII’S BIGGEST ISSUES
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The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Jim Simon, Richard Wiens, Chad Blair and Jessica Terrell. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.