Governor Vetoes Reform Of Controversial Police Funding Program

Jul 9, 2019

Updated July 9, 5:07 p.m.

As he signaled earlier, Gov. David Ige announced on Tuesday that he has vetoed a bill passed by state lawmakers to restrict the ability of law enforcement to seize private property and sell it at auction. Ige said "sufficient safeguards are in place" to prevent abuse of the practice.

The bill was among 18 measures he vetoed and two that he allowed to become law without his signature.

Known as civil asset forfeiture, the seizure program is used in all 50 states as a way to confiscate the financial and physical assets of criminals.

But only a handful of states require a criminal conviction before property can be taken by police. In most jurisdictions, police only need to demonstrate probable cause to initiate a seizure.

In many cases a conviction never comes. Between 2006 and 2015, more than $11 million worth of private property in Hawaii was seized by police. In 26% of those cases, no criminal charges were filed, according to a 2018 report from the state auditor.

Retrieving seized property in Hawaii takes on average 18 months and usually requires hiring an attorney. Seized property, which is put up for auction, is often deteriorated or destroyed before the original owner can regain possession.

Proceeds from the auction sales are split between the police department that seized the property, the county prosecutor, and the state’s Criminal Forfeiture Fund, which is controlled by the state Attorney General.  

Keli’i Akina, president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, calls that “a perverse incentive” to increase the use of civil asset forfeiture to fund law enforcement agencies.

That opinion was echoed by the Hawaii chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“These are not good reasons to keep this program going. Civil asset forfeiture is intended to stop criminal operations, not pad police department budgets. It should be an unstable funding source, so we shouldn't be relying upon it,” said Mandy Fernandes, ACLU of Hawaii’s policy director.

According to ACLU of Hawaii, much of the revenue generated by the use of civil asset forfeiture goes to pay the salaries of state workers in the Asset Forfeiture Division of the Attorney General’s office.

But some of that money does fund the procurement of training and equipment for police departments, which Governor Ige says is an important source of funding.

In announcing in June his intent to veto the civil asset forfeiture reform measure, Ige said he believed Hawaii’s police use the practice responsibly.

“I do believe this measure would have taken away a vital resource for our law enforcement,” Ige told assembled reporters.

In reaction to the governor's veto, House Speaker Scott Saiki said that lawmakers received a high volume of feedback from supporters and opponents of H.B. 748 after the bill was passed. He added that the measure will likely be modified and reintroduced in some form during the 2020 legislative session.

State Rep. Joy A. San Buenaventura, who introduced the bill in the House, said she was disappointed in the governor's veto. The fact that revenue from the forfeitures goes to law enforcement is a "clear conflict of interest."

"With the recent corruption convictions we have seen in Hawai'i, lawmakers must work hard to ensure residents that their public officials follow clear ethical guidelines when doing their jobs. If signed, this bill would have helped to show that people really are treated equally and fairly, in Hawai'i," she said in a statement.

In announcing his official veto, Ige told reporters that he has directed Attorney General Clare Connors to develop clearer rules for the state's civil asset forfeiture program by the end of the year.

Last week, lawmakers announced they were considering a special legislative session to override some of the governor’s intended vetoes, but failed to reach a consensus on the matter and no special session was scheduled.

State Audit of Civil Asset Forfeiture Program