- Associated Press - Monday, April 18, 2016

HONOLULU (AP) - Hawaii lawmakers want to know how often police are seizing people’s property and what happens with money they make from selling it.

Right now, law enforcement can take Hawaii residents’ property without a conviction or arrest as long as it’s tied to a crime. Then, they can sell it and keep the profits.

But lawmakers say that can promote abuse of the state’s civil asset forfeiture law. In response, they’re considering a resolution to ask for an audit to figure out how law enforcement and prosecutors are using money made from selling seized property. It would also examine how many times property was seized in cases where there weren’t convictions.

Hawaii has one of the worst asset forfeiture laws in the nation because innocent owners bear the burden of proof to show they had nothing to do with the crimes, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii.

There’s a growing national trend to reform civil asset forfeiture laws. The laws were first seen as a way for law enforcement to fight large-scale criminal organizations and drug kingpins by seizing property such as cash and cars.

But now the laws have come under scrutiny, and many states are considering reform. Just this month, Florida passed a law that would make it harder for police to seize property by requiring an arrest in most cases.

“It has been used to create revenue for law enforcement with little restriction or accountability,” said Mandy Finlay of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii. “This practice harms property owners, who, due to inadequate state law, often cannot afford to challenge invalid forfeitures.”

The Hawaii resolution is the only measure still alive after several introduced this session to reform civil asset forfeiture laws.

Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, who introduced the resolution, said the state’s asset forfeiture law disproportionately affects low-income residents who don’t have the money to hire an attorney to get their property back, even if they’re innocent.

San Buenaventura said her husband fell victim to Hawaii’s civil asset forfeiture laws when police took his generator, saying it might have been stolen. The claim was dismissed, but it still took San Buenaventura suing the government to get it back.

“If you’re going to take somebody’s asset, let’s make sure they in fact are the criminal, especially when there are other people relying on that asset,” said San Buenaventura.

The Hawaii Attorney General’s Office, county prosecutors and police made an average of $1.2 million from selling seized property each year between 2000 and 2013, according to a report from the Institute of Justice. During that same timeframe, Hawaii agencies brought in $20 million from a federal program to share earnings.

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