A bill expanding domestic violence laws in Hawaii by criminalizing coercive control is sitting on Gov. David Ige’s desk.

But it’s unclear whether the measure will be signed into law given strong opposition from law enforcement agencies, including Ige’s attorney general.

Hawaii advocates for victims of domestic abuse say the change is important to address the often unseen versions of domestic violence — psychological control that may not leave bruises but still effectively traps people within abusive relationships.

“I think it’s an enormous advance and an enormous step forward in having survivors’ experience be better understood,” said Nanci Kreidman, who leads the Domestic Violence Action Center in Hawaii.

The bill’s passage in the Legislature followed a spike in allegations of domestic abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced people to stay home due to lockdowns and caused increased stress as normal life was disrupted and people lost jobs.

The number of calls to the Domestic Violence Action Center’s helpline nearly tripled between February 2020 — the last month before stay-at-home orders began in Hawaii — and February 2021.

The nonprofit’s total number of client contacts were up 77% over that same time period, according to data provided by Kreidman.

House members gather on the floor with plastic barriers between members on opening day of the 2021 legislature.
The Hawaii Legislature has voted to make coercive control a petty misdemeanor as part of a five-year pilot program. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Kreidman said House Bill 566 extends the tools available to law enforcement to allow them to address nonphysical forms of domestic abuse.

The state defines coercive control as “a pattern of behavior that seeks to take away the individual’s liberty or freedom and strip away the individual’s sense of self, including bodily integrity and human rights.”

The pattern is “designed to make an individual dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence, and regulating their everyday behavior.”

California allows coercive control to be used as evidence for a domestic violence restraining order, but it’s unclear if any other states have made the behavior a petty misdemeanor.

“So this is legendary,” Kreidman said.

The House passed the measure unanimously on April 22. The Senate had already passed the bill earlier on March 29. Twenty-four senators voted yes on the bill, except for Sen. Laura Acasio who voted no. Sen. Kurt Fevella voted yes with reservations.

But the bill still needs to pass legal review before it can become law, and that may not happen due to strong objections from the public defender’s office, prosecutor’s office and police departments.

Ige has until July 6 to sign the measure, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

“I think it’s an enormous advance and an enormous step forward in having survivors’ experience be better understood.” — Advocate Nanci Kreidman

One hurdle is the opposition by Ige’s attorney general’s office, which wrote in legislative testimony that coercive control “is not suited for criminal prosecution.”

“It is not clear what conduct the bill intends to prohibit or what kind of evidence could be used to prove a defendant engaged in the prohibited conduct,” the agency wrote.

“While the Department understands that the intent of the bill is to increase protections for victims, the vagueness and overbreadth of the bill’s amendments will only add confusion and uncertainty for both the victims and law enforcement.”

The state’s definition of coercive control says such behavior could include controlling someone’s money and where they go, frequently calling them names and threatening them, or isolating them from friends and family.

Hawaii already has a law allowing people to seek temporary restraining orders based on coercive control. HB 566, if it becomes law, would extend that to allow those behaviors to be prosecuted.

Sen. Karl Rhoads acknowledged that without law enforcement support, coercive control may never be prosecuted despite being on the books.

“It may be a very important step forward or we may find it just doesn’t work very well and we’ll find out in a few years,” he said.

That uncertainty is why Rhoads added the bill to a pilot project that sunsets in 2025. The pilot project allows people convicted of domestic abuse to take domestic violence prevention classes instead of spending time in jail.

Rhoads noted that prosecutors could still rely on existing statute to prosecute domestic violence and don’t actually have to use the new language to charge someone.

“I’m not sure if it will work because it may be very difficult to charge under those criteria,” he said.

Kreidman hopes that the statute is actually utilized.

“I hope that the system will get behind it and lean into it in a way that’s going to matter,” she said. “That’s my greatest hope.”

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