Petty Misdemeanors Would Trigger Asset Forfeiture in New Hawaii Bill

A new bill under consideration in Hawaii’s state senate would expand asset forfeiture to include petty misdemeanors.  Under Hawaii state law, petty misdemeanors are usually punished by up to 30 days in jail and/or $1,000 in fines.  But if SB 1342 passes, petty misdemeanors would join murder and theft as offenses that are subject to property forfeiture.  It would also raise a ton of new legal questions: for disorderly conduct, could stereos and iPods be seized if someone’s music is too loud?  Could someone lose his car if he is caught speeding or driving under the influence?

In submitted testimony, the Hawaii chapter of the ACLU posits that applying asset forfeiture to petty misdemeanors like trespassing could lead to all sorts of ridiculously-cruel consequences.  Homeless people could lose their property if they camp out in a park after hours.  Protestors could have their signs, petitions and other assets seized—a chilling effect on the First Amendment.

The bill is backed by Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources as a way to protect “natural, cultural, historical and recreational resources.”  The Department also argues that fines and other penalties are “not a sufficient deterrent.”  But including asset forfeiture as a punishment is excessive.  Indeed, Hawaii County Prosecutor Mitch Roth has lambasted the bill as “draconian.”  Meanwhile, state Sen. Russell Ruderman called SB 1342 “outrageous,” telling Big Island Now that “we should have more safeguards, not less, to protect people from forfeiture abuses.”

The Institute for Justice gave Hawaii a D for its atrocious civil asset forfeiture laws.  Property owners bear the burden of proof, meaning they must prove their innocence, the exact opposite of centuries of Western jurisprudence.  On top of that, law enforcement agencies receive 100 percent of their funds raised with civil forfeiture.

— Nick Sibilla
Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice

Sign up to receive IJ's biweekly digital magazine, Liberty & Law along with breaking updates about our fight to protect the rights of all Americans.