Hawaii's New Asset Forfeiture Rules Take Effect Jan. 17

Jan 4, 2020

New requirements will apply to local enforcement authorities in seizing cars and other property of criminals under long-awaited asset forfeiture rules issued by the Hawaii attorney general on Dec. 31.

The rules take effect Jan. 17 and require county prosecutors to describe the crimes that justify the seizure of private property under state statutes and to petition the attorney general for approval.

The seizure program, known as civil asset forfeiture, is used in all 50 states to confiscate financial and other property of criminals. Some states require a criminal conviction before the property can be taken but most jurisdictions, including Hawaii, require police only demonstrate probable cause to initiate a seizure.

Hawaii's asset forfeiture program has been in place for over 30 years, but administrative rules had not been previously issued. 

Last year, Gov. David Ige vetoed a measure that supporters said would have placed needed restrictions on law enforcement agencies' use of asset forfeitures in response to reported abuses. Among other limitations, the bill would have required the sale of seized property to proceed only after owners were convicted of felonies.

Ige said H.B. 748 was too restrictive and that enough protections existed under current laws. But he called on the attorney general to issue the administrative rules for the ongoing asset program by the end of 2019.

The rules spell out a process for owners and their attorneys to seek a return of seized property if they believe the assets were wrongfully taken.

Proceeds from public auctions of seized properties are distributed to state and local agencies, including county police departments. Critics of the asset forfeiture program had sought to funnel the proceeds into the state's general fund.

State House Speaker Scott Saiki said after the governor's veto of H.B. 748 that the bill would likely be modified and reintroduced in some form during this year's legislative session.