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Though a group of government officials and business leaders made numerous suggestions for curbing Hawaii’s illegal fireworks problem nearly a decade ago, little has been done to address the cacophony that fills Hawaii’s skies and streets on New Year’s Eve.
A report in 2011 recommended increasing permitting fees and fines, decriminalizing fireworks offenses to make prosecution easier and implementing random inspections of shipping containers.
Now, a follow-up report has found that the Legislature as well as state and county agencies haven’t followed through on many of those recommendations.
“Further, several stakeholders surveyed by the bureau provided additional, and somewhat contradictory, suggestions for the Legislature to consider if it decides to take further action to address the illegal importation and use of fireworks,” research attorneys with the Legislative Reference Bureau write in their report, “Blast From The Past.”
Three county police departments made one of those contradictory recommendations when they separately suggested increased jail time for fireworks offenders. The 2011 task force recommended making penalties civil violations instead, and some fireworks purveyors have suggested loosening bans on fireworks.
The report also addresses a number of challenges facing the counties including inadequate resources for law enforcement, a high burden of proof for prosecutors and issues with increased inspections.
The new report says that if the Legislature wants to take up the fireworks issue again, it could start by reviewing and trying to implement the recommendations from the 2011 task force.
But Will Espero, a former state senator who co-chaired the 2011 task force, said there needs to be a stronger push by advocacy groups for any change in the Legislature.
“It could be because it’s a once a year issue,” Espero says of the lack of political will to move legislation. “But it always comes up, every single year.”
Act 184, which called for the new report by the LRB, actually began as a proposal from the Hawaii State Fire Council to ban all fireworks except those used for cultural events. The bill was replaced early on in the 2019 session with language calling for the follow-up report.
The Legislature has tried several times since 2011 to increase fines and fees, and the state Fire Council even introduced a measure earlier this year that would have upped display permit fees. None of those proposals passed.
“Current fines and penalties appear to act as little to no deterrence,” the Honolulu Police Department wrote to the LRB.
The report notes that all county police departments support increased penalties for illegal fireworks.
The 2011 task force also suggested decriminalizing fireworks violations and replacing them with civil penalties to lower the burden of proof needed to charge someone with a fireworks violation.
In contrast to the task force recommendations for decriminalizing violations, the Hawaii County Fire Department as well as Hawaii County, Maui County and Honolulu Police recommended more jail time to deter potential offenders.
They made those recommendations even though enforcement has been difficult for police departments and prosecutors. For example, the Maui Police Department referred 20 fireworks cases over the past eight years to the prosecutor’s office, of which four resulted in convictions.
Other issues with enforcement include lack of resources, difficulty securing evidence and a “lack of widespread significant community support for enforcement,” Maui police wrote in a response to the report.
Act 248, signed by Gov. David Ige in July, tried to make it easier for police to establish probable cause in fireworks cases by putting into law language saying that statements from witnesses as well as videos, photographs and even drone footage can be submitted as evidence. It also places liability for violations on property owners.
City prosecutors don’t believe the new law will have much of an effect, according to the report. And HPD worries that some of the evidence, including drone footage, may not be admissible in court.
Correction: A previous version of this story said that aerial fireworks were banned on Oahu in 2011. The Legislature limited aerial fireworks to public displays in 2000.
After the Honolulu City Council banned all fireworks except firecrackers on Oahu in 2011, fireworks-related injuries dropped sharply from 79 in 2010 to 15 in 2011, the report says. There were 32 fireworks-related injuries last year on Oahu.
The 2011 ban on aerials, along with a 2016 ban on fireworks in residential and agricultural zones on the Big Island have been two of the most significant prohibitions on pyrotechnics in the past decade.
There were 42 fireworks-related injuries statewide in 2018.
Espero says many of the group’s recommendations could be implemented in a pilot program. Specifically, the state could test random inspections of shipping containers, he said.
“We aren’t looking at something that’s even that difficult to do or even controversial in my opinion,” he said.
Espero introduced a measure in 2016 that would have allowed state deputy sheriffs to randomly inspect containers once they get onto the docks and into warehouses.
Matson wrote in the new report that inspections could delay shipping times. But Espero says random inspections, even infrequent ones, shouldn’t delay shipments.
“That’s the key to make the system work,” Espero said. “You don’t want to jam up the harbors.”
The random inspections would hopefully help state law enforcement to weed out where exactly illegal shipments of fireworks, specifically aerials on Oahu, are coming from.
It’s something that confounds Rito Saniatan, chair of the Waipahu Neighborhood Board.
“Who’s bringing in those illegal fireworks, and how is it getting to the consumer?” Saniatan said. “That’s what just puzzles me.”
He says it’s gotten worse over the years in Waipahu, where neighbors don’t just pop fireworks on New Year’s Eve, but even after football games, like the Super Bowl, or if local fighter Max Holloway wins a match.
Saniatan says residents come to him with complaints about the noise, the smoke and the trouble it all causes their pets.
“Some people are irritating other people,” he said. They’re “blowing fireworks at 1 or 2 in the morning. It’s getting out of control.”
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