In Wake Of Hibiscus Drive, How To Handle Difficult Evictions

Jan 30, 2020

Police are still piecing together the events that ended with two Honolulu officers fatally shot and seven homes on Hibiscus Drive near Diamond Head burned to the ground last week.

What is known is that the suspected gunman and arsonist was being evicted after repeated attempts, raising the question: could it have been handled differently?

 

Evicting a tenant is the last thing Oʻahu property manager Darlene Higa wants to do. She says evictions are time-consuming and unpredictable.

"You could face a tenant who is evading the process, which would make it more difficult," she said. "The other issue is you have a tenant like the one in the Diamond Head situation. So it's always an unknown. I would not suggest anybody doing it on their own."

Suspect Jerry Hanel had been living in the Hibiscus Drive home rent-free for 12 years, working as a handyman. Neighbors say he was mentally ill – that he hid in bushes, videotaped passersby and chased cars down the street. His landlord, Lois Cain, was in the process of evicting Hanel when they had an encounter on January 19.

Two Honolulu officers were shot and killed when responding to a 911 call for help. Several homes were burned and destroyed. The city medical examiner's office identified Cain's remains in the rubble of the burned homes. Hanel has not been publicly accounted for but another set of remains has been identified. The name has not been released pending notification of relatives.

Honolulu attorney Ben Creps has handled eviction cases for Ashford & Wriston. He advises property owners to stay away during the evictions.

"If there's hostile tensions between the parties, then the best thing for the landowner or property agent to do is to try to remove themselves from the situation," he said. "And that's why you have lawyers and you have process servers and you have judges. It's kind of getting the parties out of directly engaging with each other."

Cain did hire attorney Kenneth Lau, who specializes in evictions -- and Hanel was served. Despite that, Cain engaged with Hanel before she was killed.

Cain had no lease agreement with Hanel, and Creps says that complicates things.

"When you don't have one, there's a lot of ambiguities, there's a lot of uncertainties and there's a lot of disputes of fact," he said.

Under Hawaiʻi’s landlord-tenant code, tenants can be evicted for failing to pay rent, illegal activity, and lease violations, among other reasons. Higa says many people are unfamiliar with the law.

"I would say that a lot of the tenants and non-professional landlords really don't know what's in the landlord tenant code... But when they're in a dispute...then one or both sides start making up their own rules or, you know, it becomes emotional."

Could anything in the landlord-tenant code have prevented what happened on Hibiscus Drive? Creps says that’s a tough question to answer.

"You know, you have always the human element and emotions. And in here, likely you have a lot of systemic factors at play, whether it's the mental health of the tenant or ... whether alternative housing arrangements are available to the tenant and those sorts of things," he said.

Creps said he doesn’t think changing the code would address what happened.

Still, there may be lessons in how evictions can be handled that could help prevent tenant disputes from turning deadly.