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ACLU sues Maui County over homeless encampment sweep, claims violation of constitutional rights

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Kanahā/Amala Place on Sept. 21, 2021

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued Maui County, claiming due process rights and constitutional protections were violated during a sweep of a homeless camp in Kahului.

Maui officials said concerns regarding health, safety, access, and wildlife in the Kanahā Beach area led to the action.

Listen below to the extended interviews from The Aloha Friday Conversation on Nov. 12, 2021.

ACLU Hawaiʻi Legal Director Jongwook "Wookie" Kim and plaintiff Sonia Davis
The Aloha Friday Conversation

Jongwook "Wookie" Kim is the legal director for the ACLU Hawaiʻi. Asked whether Maui County's actions at Kanahā Beach were substantively different from other sweeps and cleanups across the state, Kim said, "In short, not really. These kinds of sweeps are occurring every day statewide."

Maui County called it an "intervention" in Kanahā, undertaken for health and safety reasons.

It was particularly troubling, however, said Kim, because of its scale, and scope of action. The county estimated up to 80 campers at the site. Kim said Honolulu has instituted procedures to comply with due process and the Fourth Amendment.

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Workers clean up items at Amala Place on Sept. 21, 2021.

"We don't think Honolulu's system is adequate, appropriate, or just. But what's concerning about Maui is that it's basically the Wild West. No one knows what procedures are being followed. There is no system the county has outlined to the public about how, when, whether sweeps are conducted," Kim said. "That was one of the reasons why we decided to intervene in this particular instance."

Situated near downtown Kahului and its airport, Kanahā Beach is a world-class windsurfing destination. The Kanahā Pond State Wildlife Sanctuary is an adjoining wetland. The county reported up to 80 people were living at and around the park.

Mayor Michael Victorino said in a statement that notices to vacate were posted two to three weeks in advance, and social services were offered. Ultimately, Maui County and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources removed 54 vehicles and 58 tons of solid waste from Amala Place and the Kanahā Beach area. DLNR will replace a damaged perimeter fence they said allowed predators into the Kanahā Pond Sanctuary, threatening native water birds.

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A notice of an abandoned vehicle at Amala Place in September 2021.

Sonia Davis, 64, is one of four plaintiffs in the ACLU case. Davis had rental assistance housing for a year, but recently found herself back on the beach. She missed her probation officer's call one day, which is a parole violation. Davis was arrested.

When she got out, she said, "That's when I found out that they were doing a sweep and that we had five days to be out of there."

Davis has lived at Kanahā for about 5 years. She said it's been a safe, stable community of about 50 people — half of them employed. Recently, however, numbers have swelled.

"When they did the sweeps at Harbors and other places, then everybody started coming where we was at," she said. "Now it's harder because my car is illegal and I don't have a license and I have to drive it on the road to get to a place where we can be safe and not going to be harassed."

A citation would be a parole violation for Davis, who was also caring for her family's five dogs. She said they were never offered a place to stay.

"They didn't even tell us where to go. We just left, we went to another park," Davis said.

The ACLU suit contends Maui County violated due process and Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

"Our constitution gives us many protections that reside in the home or the house. When you don't have a house, you're exposed to the state, you're exposed to government intervention. That does not mean the government can just take your property without giving you due process," legal director Kim said. "So the solution is, first of all, to think about an approach that doesn't rely first on policing and criminal enforcement to 'address' houselessness. Really it's to think more broadly about, 'What other ways are there to think about this deep seated problem?'"

Kim said stop gaps along the way could include more temporary shelters, public sanitary facilities, and safe parking areas with facilities.

Davis said most of the Kanahā people were scattered across the island, though about 20 were still in the area. As for the three other plaintiffs, Jessica Lau was losing her space at an emergency shelter and could not make this interview.

"And the same sort of goes for Adam and Laura Lee. They've been in the pallet facility and it's just been a horrendous situation. This is another important point the public doesn't understand. Shelter is often even worse than wherever you were originally," Kim said.

Shelter space, however, is often unavailable or unsuitable. For example, on Sept. 9, Maui shelters logged 18 open beds in common rooms, and 10 units of various sizes available. Pets are not usually allowed.

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