To say that criminals are targeting seniors these days is like saying that water is wet. It’s obvious. Just turn on the news and you’ll see videos of violent purse snatchings, and interviews of victims being conducted from hospital beds.

Our kupuna are seemingly walking around with targets on their backs — that is if they dare to go walking outside at all these days.

In just comparing the number of felony elder abuse criminal cases set for trial on Oahu in January 2019 (15 violent crimes, 29 property crimes, 17 financial crimes) to the current trial load being handled by the Elder Abuse Unit at the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office (34 violent crimes, 52 property crimes, 19 financial crimes), it is apparent that the criminal trend against elders in our community is increasing.

This coupled with the realization that the number of elder abuse cases have increased to the point where they are now almost double the number of felony domestic violence cases currently being prosecuted screams that changes have to be made to how these matters are being handled.

Thankfully, in the summer of 2019, Maui Prosecuting Attorney Don Guzman hosted an elder abuse summit that brought together experts (both law enforcement and social services professionals) from across the state and the mainland to discuss how best to address elder abuse in our community.

One of the ideas that formed from this collaborative effort was a series of amendments to the current laws that would enhance the penalties for those persons who victimize our seniors. This package of amendments (House Bill 1874, Senate Bill 2334) is before Hawaii lawmakers this legislative session.

The Maui Prosecutor’s Office has proposed legislation to protect seniors from crime. Wailuku, pictured here, is where county offices are located. Flickr: Forest and Kim Starr

In a nutshell, the Maui set of amendments hopes to modify the law in the following manner:

  1. if a person assaults a senior causing him physical pain, that crime could be charged as a felony instead of only being treated as a misdemeanor offense (current law requires more serious injuries, like broken bones, in order for these crimes to be treated more seriously);
  2. if a person steals over $250 from a senior (current law says over $750), that crime could also now be considered being charged as a felony matter; and
  3. if a person forges a victim’s name on a document or tries to cash a stolen check belonging to a senior, that matter is now a more serious felony.

Additionally, the Maui Prosecutor’s Office is trying to standardize the age requirement for victims to receive these added protections. Currently, an elder is defined differently, depending on where one looks in the Hawaii Revised Statutes.

Maui Prosecutor Don Guzman. 

While most criminal statutes place the age of a senior at 60, there are instances where the ages of 62 and 65 are mentioned as well in the definitions. The Maui Prosecutor’s Office wants to unify this age across the board and make it 60.

While I realize many people might think 60 is too young to be considered a senior or question why a certain age even needs to be articulated, it is important to remember the intent of these laws: criminals should not even think about committing a crime against a senior, whether that senior is vulnerable or not.

Furthermore, with a specific age clearly expressed in statute, the police and law enforcement will have an unambiguous indicator of how to proceed in these cases.

Now the question might be asked, “what if the criminal doesn’t know the age of the victim?”

Who cares?

Perpetrators of statutory rape have tried unsuccessfully for decades in the appeals courts to say that it should be a legal defense to have sex with children if they believed the children looked like adults. The same rules for those types of sexual assault cases applies to elder abuse cases as well.

In fact, there is already an existing statute in Hawaii, Unauthorized Entry Into a Dwelling Place in the First Degree, that makes it a felony crime if a person enters the residence without permission and there is a person 62 years old or older inside the home.

Change is needed in how we are handling these crimes.

It doesn’t matter whether or not the criminal even knew anybody was home or not much less their age. This is like the misdemeanor crime of trespass on steroids and has been successfully used repeatedly to hold accountable these intruders who enter the homes of our kupuna uninvited.

If our elected representatives and senators see fit to make this proposed bill into law, I foresee that the individuals and gangs that are targeting seniors are going to think twice about committing these crimes when they know they will be investigated by felony detectives from the police department, held in custody on felony bail, facing felony charges in a felony courtroom and be sentenced to felony consequences.

Again, change is needed in how we are handling these crimes. Advice to seniors on how to carry their purses or when to go shopping can only protect them so much.

Maui’s efforts with this legislative proposal in combating elder abuse is a significant step in sending a message to those who wish to target our kupuna, “Don’t. Even. Look. At. Them.”

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About the Author

  • Scott Spallina
    Scott Spallina has been a Honolulu Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for over 26 years and was the supervisor of the Domestic Violence Team until 2008, when he created Hawaii’s first Elder Abuse Unit, which he still supervises. He also teaches at the Honolulu Police Academy and regularly presents to senior groups and financial institutions about elder abuse prevention and current criminal treads.