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Law overrules Hawaiʻi Supreme Court decision to limit felony charges to grand jury trials

Zoe Dym
Gov. Josh Green speaks at a press conference with Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Steve Alm, back. (March 22, 2023)

Gov. Josh Green signed a bill on Wednesday that allows prosecutors to pursue felony charges through a preliminary hearing as opposed to a grand jury trial. Lawmakers set out to overrule a 2022 Hawaiʻi Supreme Court decision about the matter.

The state constitution was amended in 1982 to allow felony prosecutions to be charged through a grand jury or a preliminary hearing. The State v. Obrero decision last year made grand jury trials a requirement for felony offenses for the first time in 40 years.

The case came about after a grand jury declined to charge a man, so prosecutors found a judge to agree to charges through a preliminary hearing.

The court ruled that then-state law did not allow for felony criminal charges via a preliminary hearing.

"Particularly for domestic violence felonies, it will allow us to hold offenders more accountable, because preliminary hearings allow that. Because if the victim is too afraid to show up for trial, or flees the jurisdiction because there's a chance for cross-examination at the preliminary hearing, we can introduce that transcript and the defendant doesn't walk free," Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm said.

The new law does limit how many times county prosecutors can try to charge a felony case through a grand jury indictment, or complaint following a preliminary hearing, unless certain conditions are met.

This is the first bill to be signed into law this year — and the first piece of legislation to have Gov. Josh Green’s signature.

“The people of Hawai‘i want to feel safe in their homes and communities and have every right to expect government leaders to provide public safety. This legislation is a tool that will help our law enforcement officers and county prosecutors continue their work toward that goal,” Green said in a statement.

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