The program is known as civil asset forfeiture. Some form of asset forfeiture is used in all 50 states as a way to seize 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 in 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.
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.