A Civil Beat analysis shows 94% of citations are dropped, but the records paint a portrait of where police try to crack down on the alleged perpetrators.

On the last day of 2017, the Honolulu Police Department cited Allan Badua for setting off illegal fireworks. For unknown reasons, the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office dropped the charges.

A few years later, police responded to an argument at a Makiki home between Badua and his girlfriend and discovered hundreds of pounds of fireworks, Hawaii News Now reported. The fireworks were seized and the two were released pending further investigation – but no charges were ever filed, according to court records.

A year later, a woman in Moanalua noticed a man she identified as Badua setting off “bomb”-type fireworks in Moanulua. She told him to take it to his own neighborhood and called 911. An HPD officer photographed the fireworks in a box next to Badua’s car, took the spent fireworks and cited him.

Again, the charges were dropped.

Allan Badua
Allan Badua was cited at least three times for fireworks violations. (Department of Public Safety)

And in October, a woman called to report Badua had set off fireworks at an intersection in Aiea. She watched him on a moped setting up the device on the street and riding away as it exploded — twice. Police found him sitting in a car and cited him. A month later, the charges were dismissed.

Each year, Honolulu police cite dozens of fireworks scofflaws, usually when patrolling officers on New Year’s Eve witness them in public places shooting off aerials, which are illegal. It serves, in some measure, to placate members of the public up in arms over the months-long fusillade of illegal pyrotechnics leading up to New Year’s Eve.

But the enforcement numbers add up to little more than theater. In 94% of cases over the past five years – as in Badua’s cases – the charges are simply dismissed, according to a Civil Beat analysis of data provided by the state Judiciary. Badua could not be reached for comment.

And in the few cases that actually result in a guilty plea, the fines add up to little more than fiscal couch change – a mere $1,055 over five years, according to the cases provided by the Judiciary.

Prosecutions are hard because they require witnesses to identify the person who set off the fireworks, Brooks Baehr, a spokesman for Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm, said in a written statement. Many witnesses are reluctant to testify in court, sometimes because they are loath to agitate a neighbor, he said.

But the vast majority of citations are issued when police officers on patrol see someone set off a illegal firework, and Alm’s office did not explain why most of these are dropped.

Baehr cited the difficulty of proving that a device meets the legal definition of a “firework” or “aerial device” since the evidence “explodes in the sky.” But again, HPD officers often confiscate the spent explosives and ones that have not been set off yet.

In a 2019 report, HPD cited the lack of prosecutions as one of the primary hurdles to cracking down on illicit fireworks.

“Laws are enacted, violations are addressed by law enforcement; however, most cases tend to be dismissed,” according to a 2019 report by the Legislative Reference Bureau.

‘Can I Get A Break? I’m A Financial Adviser.’

Regardless, the HPD citations provide a snapshot of where fireworks citations occur and who’s on the receiving end.

First the where. Fireworks citations do not provide an exact picture of where illegal fireworks are being shot off – just where people are being caught.

Civil Beat’s analysis found hotspots in Kalihi, Waipahu, Wahiawa and Ewa Beach – all places that are known anecdotally for prodigious pyrotechnics.

But residents of other parts of the island might be surprised to know that no one was cited in their neighborhoods over the past five years – Waimanalo, for instance. Likewise, no one in Hawaii Kai and very few in Kahala got cited – though both of those well-off neighborhoods are no strangers to fireworks.

What about the who?

Not surprisingly, 88% of alleged offenders were men. And many of the women who were cited were the mothers of teenage boys who were caught fooling around with fireworks on the street.

The average age was 35, with a range from 75 to 18.

The arresting officers sometimes listed the profession or employee of the perpetrators. Among them: several hotel and restaurant workers, a Best Buy installer, a carpenter, a college student, delivery drivers, a building manager, a plumber, a stevedore, two hospital workers, a Honolulu city worker and a teacher at Queen Kaahumanu Elementary School.

In one case, the suspect cited his profession as grounds for leniency.

“Sorry, I know it’s illegal,” the 25-year-old man told the officer in 2019, according to the citation. “Can I get a break? I’m a financial adviser.”

The case was later dismissed.

Illegal fireworks were set off at the top of Ward Avenue by residents. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Despite the steep cost of fireworks, 11 of those cited said they were unemployed.

One 47-year-old man in 2018 was seen shooting aerial devices from the side of his property, in front of the officer’s car. He told the officer he didn’t have any more “because he did not make that much money.”

He pleaded no contest and was one of the few who had to pay a fine – $100 in his case.

In 2020, a 61-year-old man in Honolulu explained that he was having such a good time at a party that he didn’t notice he had jumped the gun by lighting firecrackers before 9 p.m.

“I am a very law-abiding citizen and I am very sorry for my actions,” he wrote to the court. “I have a construction job and work Monday through Friday and depend on my earnings to pay for my living. As such, I humbly ask for your leniency, so that I don’t have to appear in court.”

The court told him he had to show up, but it turned out he needn’t have made the trip – the charges were dropped.

Another said that he was living in a tent in a nearby parking lot. That citation was also dismissed.

A Host Of Excuses

The citations depict a range of reactions to being busted – and explanations.

In 2018, one man in Hauula, on the Windward Coast, “refused to sign, claiming kingdom of Hawaii.” He crumpled up the citation and threw it on the ground. Five years later across the island in Kaimuki, a 33-year-old man did the same thing as he walked away from the officer.

In 2019 in Honolulu, a 24-year-old man “looked at me and uttered ‘Ahhh, FUCK!!!’” according to the citation. It was an overreaction – the citation was dismissed.

Some tried to hide. As the officer approached, one man ”walked quickly into the garage of his residence and tried to hide the propane torch he used to light the fuse.” He disclosed that he worked for the city of Honolulu but refused to say exactly what he did. Turns out he was a parks aide, according to Civil Beat's database of public employee salaries.

The explanations were varied and plentiful. One said he’d done nothing wrong because a friend had told him to light the fuse. Another explained that he had a firecracker permit but had left it in his “other bag.” A third said he was simply testing the fireworks so he could decide whether to buy them.

Another explained, “Everybody is doing it."

Several failed to stop their children from shooting off fireworks, or included them in the hijinks.

One was the Honolulu mother of a 7-year-old playing with rockets. An Ewa Beach dad “allowed his daughter to light the aerial,” according to the citation.

That same year in Ewa Beach, an officer “confronted a male who related that he allowed son to light aerial fireworks fronting the residence.”

In some cases, the alleged perpetrators failed to show up in court, leading to an issuance of a bench warrant. But many of these warrants were recalled a few years later because they were never served.

In other cases, it appears from the court record that the defendant failed to show up for the court date, and the matter was simply dropped.

Many Ways To Dismiss A Citation

Citations were deep-sixed in a number of different ways. By far, the highest percentage were “dismissed without prejudice,” meaning that prosecutors were dropping the charges for now, but could refile them later. In every case examined by Civil Beat, later never came.

Others were “dismissed with prejudice” – in other words, the case was pau. Sometimes, the prosecutor filed a notice of “nolle prosequi,” a formal declaration that the case was dead.

Most of the cases do not give a reason for the state’s failure to pursue charges. The minutes from a few of the cases cite prosecutors’ need for more time to gather evidence or the lack of evidence.

The number of citations appears to have peaked just before the pandemic. Sixty-six were initiated in 2020, which would include New Year’s Eve of 2019 and New Year’s Day 2020. The total fell to 38 in 2021 before rising to 45 in 2022.

HPD itself has noted how few of its citations get prosecuted.

“The department asserted that ‘the most significant issue the Honolulu Police Department has encountered regarding fireworks offenses appears to be in prosecution,” according to the 2019 report by the Legislative Reference Bureau.

Aerial fireworks explode across the sky from Kymberly Pine's backyard in Ewa Beach on Jan. 1, 2021.
Aerial fireworks explode across the sky, as seen from former City Councilwoman Kymberly Pine's backyard in Ewa Beach on Jan. 1, 2021. (Courtesy Kimberly Pine, 2021)

It wasn’t the first time HPD had complained about the difficulties in making fireworks cases. In a 2011 report, also by the LRB, the department pointed to the high burden of proof for criminal convictions, not enough staff to field complaints or do forensic analyses of seized fireworks, the cost and scarcity of facilities to store seized fireworks and lack of authority to inspect cargo containers.

Also, since fireworks are so widespread, people were reluctant to report neighbors, friends and family.

At one point, HPD dedicated officers to work exclusively on fireworks enforcement, but they kept getting diverted to higher priority calls.

A 2019 law aimed to make it easier to crack down on fireworks by eliminating the need to prove actual possession if the homeowner or renter knowingly or recklessly allowed someone to set them off. It also allowed other kinds of evidence, including photographs, videos and even drones.

Still, some residents say HPD has pooh-poohed their evidence.

Yvonne Zienkiewicz moved to Oahu from Virginia and 2018 and was struck by the prevalence of fireworks, not just on New Year’s Eve or the Fourth of July but at any old time. Booms that echoed like shotgun blasts against the Waianae Range. Cats running for cover. Makaha Valley filling up with smoke.

“It’s not just sparklers,” she said. “It’s serious explosives at your next-door neighbor’s.”

She ended up taking a video of neighbors three doors away who she said would set off fireworks at random times. She called HPD. The officer asked if she had seen the person who did it. No, she replied, but she knew what house it was coming from and it could be seen in the video.

The officer said unless he saw it himself, or she was in the neighbor’s yard and took a photo, his hands were tied.

“He refused to look at my video,” she said.

Others testifying to the Legislature on various bills to tighten up enforcement or increase fines have reported similar experiences.

“I understand that not all pyromaniacs can be caught, particularly during the holidays,” a Kaaawa resident wrote in February, “but ONE FAMILY from ONE PROPERTY in Kaaawa is exploding their ‘ordnance,’ obviously, blatantly, belligerently and unapologetically, up to 6 nights a week.”

Police said they would talk to the offenders, she wrote. “Then we see them drive by the house and never even get out of the car. It’s like they’re on the side of the criminals, like in a 3rd world country.”

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author