It’s been 20 years since Hawaii banned aerial fireworks, yet the illegal pyrotechnics can still be seen and heard around the state, especially during New Year’s Eve and even on Lunar New Year, which is being celebrated this year on Saturday.
Nine years ago, a state task force on illegal fireworks recommended ways to stop the import and use of prohibited pyrotechnics. However, a new report from the Hawaii Legislative Reference Bureau revealed that many of the recommendations from the task force have not been adopted.
“There really isn’t any deterrence," said Will Espero, a former state senator who co-chaired the 2011 task force on illegal fireworks. One issue is the transportation of illegal fireworks in shipping containers.
"The state of Hawaii doesn’t really open containers and inspect containers,” Espero said. “This is an issue that comes up basically once a year. We're talking about illegal fireworks on New Year's Eve."
Espero said Hawaii residents are split on whether fireworks should be allowed. "When you look at the electorate and constituents, I'm going to guess that it's probably 50-50. You have many people that support it and then you have those that don't. Over the years, we have not had the political will to pass any legislation.”
The lack of strong policies has affected county police who say enforcement of existing laws alone is not enough to curb use of illegal firesworks -- and sometimes it's not worth the effort.
According to the reference bureau report, Hawaii County has not prosecuted any illegal fireworks cases since 2005. Hawaii County Police Patrol Captain Kenneth Quiocho explained that, because many aspects of the laws are difficult to prove, fireworks cases don’t get prosecuted.
“For a fireworks violation, it just seems like the resources could be better spent if we stopped the supply from coming in and then used enforcement as a way to supplement attempts to try to stop the activity from taking place,” Quiocho said.
Other counties in the state have not had much more success either in stopping violations. Both Kauai and Maui have prosecuted fewer than 10 cases each over the last five years.
Kauai Assistant Police Chief Bryson Ponce said it feels as though all of the pressure to stop illegal fireworks activity falls solely on law enforcement.
“Law enforcement is the only one that's being really tasked to observe it, enforce it, issue the citations, testify to it, write the report,” he said. “You need the whole department to be able to sit in a residential area just to be able to catch a small amount of people doing it. It's a big task to do with limited amount of manpower.”
The Honolulu Police Department did not provide the total number of cases that have been prosecuted, according to the LRB report, but noted the department is currently investigating three fireworks-related incidents.
A new state law went into effect in July holds property owners liable for illegal aerials set off on their property. It allows photographs and video to be used to establish probable cause, but Maui, Kauai and Hawaii county police did not think that it would help law enforcement efforts.
“The current law only deals with the symptoms of the issue,” said John Sang, a spokesman with the Maui Police Department. “It is unreasonable to expect county law enforcement agencies to be effective with this reality. [The new law] only pits ‘neighbor against neighbor.’ In a culture where everyone desires to get along with their neighbors, only people with bad blood will report their neighbors.”
Kauai, Maui and Hawaii police agreed that if the volume of illegal fireworks decreased, law enforcement would be more effective at catching violators since they could concentrate on fewer cases.
Honolulu Police Department declined to comment for this story.
The LRB report and a 2011 report produced by the task force suggested legislation to allow more cargo inspections of ocean shipments could curb illegal fireworks. But the departments that would be charged with the inspections have resisted the idea.
During the 2019 legislative session, Kaneohe Rep. Scott Matayoshi introduced a resolution that would have called on several government entities to inspect shipping containers originating from outside the state.
“My main concern is that illegal fireworks are the literal tip of the iceberg. They were the visible portion of all of the illegal goods coming in,” Matayoshi said. “I had noticed, and other people had noticed, an uptick in illegal fireworks, which I took to mean that the iceberg was getting bigger and bigger -- not just with fireworks, but with drugs, with everything else being smuggled into our islands.
"To me, the harbors were a natural choke point.”
The only state agency that currently inspects domestic cargo shipments is the Hawaii Department of Agriculture, but it only checks for invasive species and other organic materials. The department explained that it is not equipped to handle explosives such as illegal fireworks.
Other agencies -- the state Department of Transportation and Department of Public Safety -- named in Matayoshi’s bill said it would not be feasible to conduct inspections since thousands of shipping containers come into Hawaii. The 2011 task force report estimated about 200,000 containers enter the state each year.
Matayoshi said after holding several meetings and onsite visits at the harbors, he doesn’t disagree with the agencies’ arguments for being unable to do more inspections. However, he thinks the problem still needs to be addressed.
He plans to introduce a new measure that would check legal fireworks at its point of delivery because he’s heard that the illegal ones are smuggled in with legal fireworks.
He noted that his new proposal would not address his concern about drugs and other items that may be smuggled into state.
“We have the opportunity to scan just about every good coming in, if we could do it without significantly impacting the shipping containers and the goods coming into Hawaii to consumers,” he said. “If there is anyone out there who knows of technology that might be available that would serve the purpose of helping to better scan the shipping containers coming into Hawaii, then I’m all ears.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Matayoshi's new proposal would check legal fireworks at the docks. In fact, the propsal would check legal fireworks at its point of the delivery.