Asset forfeiture bill clears committee hurdle

  • Mitch Roth

HILO — The state Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday passed unanimously, with amendments, a bill that would make it more difficult for law enforcement agencies to seize private property in civil forfeiture cases.

SB 1485 now goes to Ways and Means, the senate’s money committee.


The measure introduced by Judiciary Chairman Karl Rhoads, an Oahu Democrat, would raise the standard of proof the state must meet in order for property to be forfeited from a “preponderance of the evidence” to “beyond a reasonable doubt” if passed into law. It also would direct proceeds from a civil forfeiture to the general fund for public education purposes.

According to the bill, at least three states — Nebraska, North Carolina and New Mexico — have abolished civil forfeiture, and 15 states now require a criminal conviction for most or all forfeiture cases.

Currently under Hawaii law, all forfeiture proceeds are divided among the state and county law enforcement agencies that were involved in the seizure and forfeiture.

The bill also would repeal administrative forfeiture proceedings, a process in which the Department of Attorney General can seize property in a quasi-judicial proceeding without a judge.

Sen. Russell Ruderman, a Puna Democrat, is a co-sponsor of the legislation, which was written in response to a 2018 state auditor’s report that found in fiscal year 2015, 26 percent of property seized was done so without a corresponding criminal conviction.

The report also concluded that between fiscal years 2013 and 2015, 107 petitions for administrative forfeiture, 14 percent of the total filed, were dismissed “for reasons such as lack of probable cause, failure to establish a nexus between the seized property and a covered offense, insufficient notice to property owners of forfeiture procedures and technical errors in documents.”

According to the auditor’s report, between fiscal years 2006 and 2015, $11.5 million in private assets were seized, including $2.7 million in cash, $2.45 million in vehicles, $1.267 million in real property, and more than $5 million in what was termed “multiple” and “miscellaneous” assets.

The state Attorney General Department submitted written testimony raising questions about its responsibilities if the bill is passed into law and asked it be held. All four county prosecutors also oppose the measure.

Hawaii County Prosecutor Mitch Roth called the committee’s endorsement of the measure “unfortunate.”

“We use forfeiture as a tool to fight crime; it’s one of the tools that keeps our communities safer and healthier,” Roth said. “In the United States in 2017, over 70,000 people died because of drug overdoses.

“… With this change, if it goes through, it will make it a lot more difficult to go after drug dealers and other criminals. We’re trying to go after the money and disrupt the organization. And by doing this, by making these changes in the asset forfeiture laws, it’s putting everybody in the state at a lot more risk. … When we deal with forfeiture, we take away the drug dealers’ money.

“We often make a bigger imprint than when we try to put them in prison, as we don’t have enough prison space.”

Those in favor include the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii and the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii.

The president of the latter, Niko Leverenz, called the auditor’s report “a clear picture of (a) system that is not accountable to the Legislature or the public” and the committee’s action “a significant first step to reforming this state’s wayward practice of asset forfeiture.”


“The right to be secure in one’s property shouldn’t be transgressed upon without adequate legal safeguards to ensure the fair administration of justice,” Leverenz said.

Email John Burnett at

  1. angkoldoy February 7, 2019 6:44 am

    Hawaii continues to seek status as ‘criminal friendly’ state.

    1. Juada Pendejo February 7, 2019 8:29 am

      You can bet your sweet asset forfeiture bill it will.

  2. briala February 7, 2019 7:41 am

    If these really are drug dealers, just prove that like you’ve always had to, and forfeiture is still on the table.

    Perhaps the real objection is that law enforcement doesn’t get to keep the money for themselves, which was an obvious conflict of interest from the get go.

    And by the way, if there’s really no place left in prison for serious drug dealers, maybe you have too many other kinds of people in there. We could start with those pot users who didn’t have money for bail from yesterday’s article.

  3. Sara Steiner-jackson February 7, 2019 8:28 am

    No asset forfeiture without a finding of guilt. The reason our police and prosecutors are so corrupt is that they get to split and keep any asset forfeitures and they have never been audited. The State Attorney General was audited in June of 2018 and it was found that the police DO NOT KEEP ANY RECORDS OF STUFF THEY STEAL, THEREFORE THERE WAS NO WAY TO AUDIT THEM.

    Why do you think they are still focusing on non-violent victimless pot growers to the exclusion of violent and property crimes. IT IS TOO SCARY TO BUST METH AND ICE HEADS SO THEY FOCUS ON CANNABIS “CRIMES” AND FEDERALLY FUNDED TRAFFIC OPERATIONS.

    The Hawaii County Auditor was requested by a councilwoman to audit the police department last year, and the Auditor said no, it would embarrass the entire county, and no, she would NOT put that in writing. So there you have it f9lks!

  4. Carol Noel February 8, 2019 12:25 pm

    Already we have homes/properties squatted on, running illegal operations and after YEARS can’t get any police action to stop them: Ag. Land with over 500 cars as various stages of ‘JUNK’ and known meth house. PAs office = Nothing. Police = nothing.

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