Rogue hikers could be charged for rescue under proposed measure

  • Chopper 1 drops off supplies to fire rescue personnel aboard Rescue Boat 7 amid the search for a missing swimmer in 2013. Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today

A measure that would not only allow, but also require in certain situations, government entities to seek reimbursement for search and rescue costs is advancing in the state Senate.

Introduced by Big Island Sen. Joy San Buenaventura (D-Puna, Ka‘u) and eight others, Senate Bill 700 would allow any government entity — typically county fire departments — engaging in a search and rescue to seek reimbursement for expenses incurred if the need for the operation was caused the person requiring rescue.

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If the rescue was caused by the person bypassing reasonable notice and/or signs and hiking on a closed trail or leaving a hiking trail and entering closed private, state or county property lands, the government entities would be required to seek reimbursement for all or a portion of the expenses.

The reimbursement, under the proposal, could be garnered from the person, their estate, guardian, or custodian, or other entity responsible for the person’s safety.

The bill was taken up by its first assigned committee, the Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental, and Military Affairs on Feb. 11. After making technical, nonsubstantive amendments, the committee voted to pass the measure 4-0.

It will be taken up Wednesday by the Committee on Judiciary for decision making. If passed this week, SB700 goes back to the Senate floor for a third reading, and if passed there, crosses over to the House for further consideration.

Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairperson Suzanne Case in testimony submitted to the state Legislature said the department is in support of “any strategy that will incentivize the general public to stay within authorized managed areas,” adding that while statutory penalties, “they are clearly not a deterrent.”

She noted, however, that because search and rescues are county responsibilities, the department would defer to them “in regard to the charging of people for rescue.”

“While this may be an incentive for people to obey the rules, it could also discourage people from calling for help,” she said in written testimony.

E. Ileina Funakoshi encouraged the Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental, and Military Affairs to pass the measure, stating taxpayers “have been covering the cost of these adventurers too long.”

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“It is time that we are not held responsible for their irresponsibility. Perhaps, if they were informed that they would have to pay for the cost of their rescue, they might reconsider in taking risks that endanger their lives,” Funakoshi wrote in testimony submitted as an individual.

Another bill moving in the Senate, Senate Bill 363, would also require reimbursement from hikers who need to be rescued after leaving a marked trail or ignoring “closed” or “no trespassing” signs. Further, it would add new petty misdemeanor penalties for hiking illegally. That measure has failed to secure a single hearing this session.

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