Honolulu City Councilman Tommy Waters is calling on the police department to take a less punitive approach to enforcing the mayor’s stay-at-home orders.

The chair of the council’s public safety committee was reacting to the news that HPD has issued approximately 44,000 criminal citations for pandemic violations in the last month alone. The wave of tickets is overwhelming prosecutors and the judiciary, angering residents and raising questions about the city’s insistence on heavily policing the outdoors to combat a virus that primarily spreads indoors.

Honolulu City Council member Tommy Waters listens to public testimony on Bill 85 and 89
Honolulu City Council member Tommy Waters listens to public testimony during a council session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

People found in violation are guilty of a misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000, up to a year in jail or both.

“In my mind, it’s unfair to saddle otherwise law-abiding citizens with criminal convictions overwhelming the system, making it impossible to prosecute these people anyway,” Waters said at the start of Thursday’s public safety committee meeting. “They are losing their jobs, their homes and their businesses, and this is just added stress. Enforcement should focus on education and assistance.”

Waters said he’s gotten complaints from people, including lawyers, who are confused about what they are and are not allowed to do. He heard about three citations being issued to a mother and her two sons who had “hopped off their bikes to climb a tree.”

Citations were also issued to a couple who was sitting in their car at Maunalua Bay watching the sunset, Waters said. Meanwhile, he said there were homeless people outside of Honolulu Hale sitting close together and not wearing masks but no citations for them.

Most cases that have been adjudicated so far have been dropped or dismissed by prosecutors, the court’s data shows. Hundreds of others are settling for a reduced penalty, like a $100 fine. But once a citation is issued, a record of it remains in the court system.

“To be clear, I understand why we’re ordered to stay at home,” Waters said. “What I take issue with is the fact that we are charging people with a crime. Now, this affects their ability to get a job. It affects their ability to get into a good school in the future and may ruin one’s reputation. I’m asking the police department to issue a fine rather than a jailable offense.

HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu said officers don’t have the option to do what Waters is suggesting.

“Misdemeanors require a court appearance, and it is up to the court, not the officer, to decide the disposition,” she said in an email. “HPD does not determine which offenses are misdemeanors.”

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