Minor crimes, major penalties
As a paralegal, Sara Steiner encounters people every day who are going to court for petty misdemeanor charges.
“Poor people can’t get ahead,” Steiner said, adding someone might not have car insurance, then get fined for failing to have the insurance. With the fine, the person can’t afford to pay for the insurance. “It’s a vicious cycle.”
So when she learned about SB 1342, a measure moving through the state Senate that would allow the state to seize the assets of someone convicted of a petty misdemeanor, she reached out to spread the word.
“It’s going to exacerbate things,” Steiner said. “I just have a big problem with it.”
The Senate’s Water and Land Committee approved the bill Thursday, referring it to the Judiciary Committee. Water and Land Committee Chairwoman Malama Solomon, D-North Hawaii, did not respond Monday to a message left on her cellphone seeking comment on the measure. Puna Sen. Russell Ruderman also serves on that committee, but was excused from voting on the measure.
“I find it absurd,” Ruderman said Monday. “I personally feel we should have more oversight over forfeiture, not less.”
The Legislature enacted the criminal forfeiture act in 1996, according to information included in the Hawaii Revised Statutes.
“The legislature found that forfeitures served a public purpose of removing assets that facilitated or were derived from illegal activity, and that the forfeited assets or their proceeds were being used for, inter alia, administering the forfeiture program and training and educating law enforcement personnel,” the notes for HRS 712a said. “The legislature also found that forfeitures served as an ‘immediate deterrent’ against future illegal activity involving the forfeited assets or precluded further enjoyment of the forfeited assets.”
HRS 712a lays out a number of drug-related crimes, as well as felonies, for which the state may seize property. SB 1342 adds “any violation of laws or rules that is charged as a petty misdemeanor.”
Oahu Sen. Maile Shimabukuro introduced the bill.
The bill has the support of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, according to written testimony.
“Most of Hawaii’s laws and administrative rules relating to the protection of our natural, cultural, historical and recreational resources carry a penalty of either a misdemeanor or petty misdemeanor offense,” Chairman William Aila said. “Frequently, these penalties are not a sufficient deterrent, and violations, often committed by the same individuals, continue to occur even after fines or other sanctions are ordered by our courts. The use of asset forfeiture as an enforcement tool will allow the department to take action against incessant violators of our resource laws by depriving violators of the means used to commit or facilitate the violation, or which are the proceeds derived from the violation. The use of asset forfeiture in petty misdemeanor cases would give the department further means to protect Hawaii’s precious resources to the fullest extent possible.”
Solomon has run afoul of some of those administrative rules, although not ones listed as being petty misdemeanors. In 2011, she was taken before the Board of Land and Natural Resources to face charges that she had a bulldozer access a North Kona property she owned by crossing state land without a permit. The final report found she violated two administrative rules and required her to take corrective actions.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii testified against the bill, claiming it would give significant financial incentive to law enforcement agencies to profit from arresting people. People unfairly targeted by the bill would have to file a claim to get their property back, ACLU officials said, and the police could keep any items someone did not claim.
“It is unlikely that regular folks whose property is taken will be equipped to seek out the appropriate statute and comply with the requirements for making a claim,” ACLU staff attorney Laurie Temple wrote. “SB 1342 expands asset forfeiture to petty misdemeanors, which means that individuals who commit minor crimes, such as trespassing on private property or staying in a park after hours, are subject to asset forfeiture.”