An effort to make it harder for law enforcement agencies to seize property used in alleged crimes has stalled this legislative session after House and Senate lawmakers failed to reach agreement on the reform measure.
Hawaii has long been criticized for its asset forfeiture statutes, which allow police to seize and sell property if they believe it may have been used in a crime. In 2015, the State Auditor found that prosecutors only secured convictions in about a quarter of cases where property was seized.
Senate Bill 294 would have stopped law enforcement from selling seized property without a conviction. The bill, however, would have allowed police to seize the property, just not sell it.
Law enforcement officials contend asset forfeiture is a powerful deterrent to crime and that lawmakers shouldn’t raise the burden on the agencies. Gov. David Ige vetoed a similar bill in 2019.
On Tuesday, House and Senate lawmakers were unable to reconcile their differences on SB 294, even though their bills were similar and the two chambers appeared to have tentative agreement.
At a meeting of House and Senate negotiators Tuesday, Sen. Karl Rhoads noted the Legislature’s agreement on asset forfeiture in 2019, but said now legislators seem far apart.
“The House’s position on this issue has changed fairly substantially,” Rhoads said. “I think I still have a very difficult time with the fundamental fairness of having someone’s property taken away in a criminal context when they haven’t been convicted of anything.”
“I don’t see a way forward,” Rhoads continued.
“I think we have a fundamental disagreement on the administrative process for civil asset forfeiture,” Rep. Scott Matayoshi, the House’s negotiator, responded.
He said the House would agree to the bill only if the entire section dealing with forfeiture reform was struck. Matayoshi said the House was still amenable to keeping a section of the bill that deposited revenues from seized property into the state’s general fund.
Rhoads would not agree, and instead deferred the bill indefinitely. That means lawmakers can still reconvene the conference committee next session, but the chances of that happening are slim.
Reached by phone Tuesday, Rhoads indicated that the Senate would not agree to axing the reform sections of the bill.
“As it stands you can take their property without charging anybody for anything,” he said. “That seems unfair and un-American.”
Also on Tuesday, lawmakers reached an agreement to have the City and County of Honolulu manage its own Emergency Medical Services program.
The city already has its own EMS department, but it is partially managed and funded by the state through the Department of Health. House Bill 1281 would have Honolulu EMS managed entirely by the city, in the same way the police and fire departments are.
The measure also comes with benefits for the state, namely, the ability to offload an estimated $50 million in operating costs that it takes to run ambulance services on the state’s most populous island.
“We feel this change will allow a lot more control,” Dr. James Ireland, the head of Honolulu EMS, said in an interview. He added that allowing the department to deal with just the mayor and city council as opposed to the DOH and Legislature would also help streamline its work.
The total cost to the state for the four county EMS departments is about $100 million, according to DOH. Honolulu accounts for about half of those costs.
Under the current law, the DOH collects most of the revenue generated from the EMS departments’ ambulance services.
If HB 1281 becomes law, the DOH would allow the Honolulu EMS to keep a greater percentage of its revenue each year for four years. The state would also continue to give the department $3.5 million annually from a state vehicle tax.
Ireland said he’s fairly confident that the department would be self-sustaining in 2024 and shouldn’t need to ask the Honolulu City Council for additional funding.
The department responds to about 110,000 911 calls every year.
The other counties’ emergency services would be untouched by the bill. However, Rep. Ryan Yamane, who introduced HB 1281, said other departments might want to negotiate a similar financing structure to Honolulu’s.
Yamane said the budget shortfall forecast at the beginning of session prompted lawmakers to take a harder look at how much the state spends on emergency services.
DOH spokeswoman Janice Okubo said that the department was “very pleased about the collaborative work that was done for this bill.”
In its testimony, DOH supported the measure because of the savings it could bring to the state and for the autonomy Honolulu EMS could gain.
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