Hawaii’s law enforcement agencies may have a harder time profiting off seized property under a measure that won unanimous approval in the Senate Monday morning.

Senate Bill 294 would only allow agencies to sell property authorities believe may have been involved in a crime if the owner of that property is convicted of a felony offense. The state auditor found in a 2018 report that, in a sample of civil asset forfeiture cases, property was seized without a corresponding criminal charge in 26% of those cases.

“It doesn’t take away the tool of cracking down on crime,” Sen. Karl Rhoads, who sponsored the legislation, said on the Senate floor. “But it does take away the possibility you might have property taken away from you without being convicted.”

Wide view of the Senate floor. Legislature Crossover 2020
The Senate on Monday advanced a bill that would reform Hawaii’s civil asset forfeiture laws. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

SB 294 would also direct revenue generated from the sale of seized property from a fund controlled by law enforcement to the state general fund. Lawmakers have said that would remove the financial incentive agencies like police departments might have for seizing property.

In 2019, the latest year data is available, Hawaii’s four county police departments seized more than $1 million worth of property, according to a report. In the same year, the AG’s office spent $280,000 from the Criminal Forfeiture Fund, most of which went to covering payroll for the Asset Forfeiture Unit.

Groups including Young Progressives Demanding Action, Common Cause Hawaii, the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii, the state Office of the Public Defender and about a dozen individuals all testified in support of the measure.

The bill is opposed by the Honolulu prosecutor’s office, the state departments of Land and Natural Resources and Public Safety, and the police departments on Oahu, Maui County and the Big Island.

In 2019, Gov. David Ige vetoed a similar proposal that also won unanimous approval by the Legislature.

Sen. Joy San Buenaventura, who authored that 2019 bill, stated her support for SB 294 Monday morning.

“This bill is long overdue,” she said.

San Buenaventura also introduced a reform measure, Senate Bill 149, which would raise the standard of proof prosecutors must meet to secure seized property, earmark proceeds from seized property for public education, and eliminate laws governing administrative forfeiture, which gives agencies the option to pursue forfeiture in certain instances outside of court.

SB 294 will now move over to the House, where it would also need to win approval before the end of the legislative session in late April.

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