Civil Asset Forfeiture

Hawaii Mismanaged Asset Forfeiture Program, Audit Finds

A state audit finds the Aloha State isn't keeping track of the stuff it seizes.


Hawaii's asset forfeiture program doesn't properly track what happens to property seized from people or properly spend those funds, according to a report released this week by the Hawaii State Auditor.

Honolulu Civil Beat reports:

According to the audit, the Office of the Attorney General, which administers the program, has failed to account for property obtained by forfeiture, inadequately managed program funds and failed to allocate some $2 million for drug prevention as required by law.

In addition, the audit said, the AG's office has failed to promulgate administrative rules needed to provide guidance to law enforcement and county prosecutors, who initiate forfeitures, and the public, who might have their assets seized.

"With the bar to seize and forfeit private property in Hawai'i so low, the department must manage the program with a heightened degree of transparency and accountability," State Auditor Les Kondo said in a statement. "We found that not to be the case."

Under civil asset forfeiture laws, police can seize property—cash, cars, even houses—suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even if the owner is never charged with a crime.

According to the audit, 26 percent of the $11.5 million-worth of civil asset forfeitures by Hawaii law enforcement between 2005 and 2017 were not accompanied by criminal charges.

Law enforcement say civil asset forfeiture is a vital tool to disrupt drug trafficking and other organized crime by targeting its illicit proceeds.

However, civil liberties groups across the political spectrum say the practice has too few due process protections for innocent property owners, and that the perverse profit incentive created by asset forfeiture leads police to target everyday citizens, rather than cartel lords.

Many states also lack strict reporting requirements for asset forfeiture, which, as the Hawaii state auditor noted, is a bad combination.

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning law firm that has challenged forfeiture laws in several states, released a report last year that found 26 states had little or no transparency requirements for asset forfeiture. Furthermore, 14 of those states "do not appear to require any form of property tracking, leaving in doubt even such basic questions as what was seized and how much it was worth, who seized it, when it was seized, where it was seized, and why it was seized."

For example, the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting published a report last year that found state law enforcement seized $200 million in personal property, nearly all of it cash, but "regulation of the program is inconsistent, and the reports designed to inform government officials about how and when the money is used are often missing data."

In response to these concerns, several state legislatures have passed or are considering laws requiring law enforcement to keep track of both what they seize and what they spend asset forfeiture funds on.

More than half of all states have passed some form of asset forfeiture reform over the past five years or so in response to bipartisan concerns.