Kokua Line

June Watanabe

Seizure of drug property
depends on appropriateness

Question: In the Sept. 16 Star-Bulletin, it was reported that HPD raided a house on Pahu Street for the second time, arresting several individuals on drug possession and other charges. Since property and material goods are the "bread and butter" of people who traffic in drugs, will the house and possessions of the arrested individuals be confiscated? I thought the federal government has the ability to perform this action. What about HPD? It seems sad that people in many communities know about these so-called "drug houses" and have made an effort to report them, but the same houses continue to be used. It's depressing for the whole neighborhood. When it comes to dealing and possessing any heavy narcotics, there needs to be a no-tolerance attitude and efficient confiscation process.

Answer: The Honolulu Police Department has the authority to seize any property "derived from any proceeds" from drug dealing that "were obtained, directly or indirectly, from the commission of a covered offense," said Capt. Kevin Lima, of HPD's Narcotics/Vice Division.

That's spelled out under Chapter 712A of the Hawaii Revised Statutes. But the law also sets limits as to when property can be seized for forfeiture.

Lima noted that the law goes on to say that "the court shall limit the scope of a forfeiture judgment to the extent the court finds the effects of the forfeiture is grossly disproportionate to the nature and severity of the owner's conduct."

In other words, he said, "the seizure of a multi-kilo-level dealer's high-priced residence could be construed as appropriate but the seizure of a drug user's residence could be construed as disproportionate."

In the case you cite, seizure of the Pahu Street residence in Waipahu -- at least at this point -- probably won't happen because the penalty could be considered disproportionate to the offense in light of the charges brought against the defendants, he said.

The nine people arrested were charged with various offenses, including drug promotion, possession of drug paraphernalia, being a felon in possession of a firearm, possession of an unregistered firearm, altering the identification number of a firearm and possession of silencers.

Lima said it is true that police searched the Pahu Street residence last month and in April. But the three main defendants arrested last month were not present during the first search, he said.

"HPD will, however, look into other possible actions that may be taken," he said, as well as "continue to arrest the same defendants if necessary."

It also is possible to consider "nuisance abatement" actions if drug dealing continues at the house, Lima said.

Jurisdiction -- federal or state -- on forfeiture actions depends on where the crime will be prosecuted, according to Lima.

"If it is a federal drug investigation (involving federal violations), then federal forfeiture is sought," he said. "If it is a state drug investigation (involving violations of state statutes) then the state will seek forfeiture."

Asked how many forfeiture actions against drug houses HPD has been involved in so far, Lima said he can only think of one, ironically leading to the building of the police substation on Hotel Street.

That property was seized and forfeited because of drug dealing involving crack cocaine.

There was also a prostitution/money laundering case in the late 1990s involving HPD that led to the forfeiture of property in Waikiki, Lima said.

Whatever law enforcement agency seizes property is responsible for its upkeep until it is forfeited or returned to the owner, he said.

"In the event the forfeiture proceedings are not successful, the property should be returned to the owners in the same condition that it was seized," he said.

So, if HPD seizes property, "then the city is liable for the property and must protect it from damage (such as arson), graffiti, injuries occurring on the property, being taken over by the homeless, and other things that could happen," Lima said.

Charlotte Duarte, deputy city prosecutor, added that federal forfeiture of real property is sought in federal criminal court, while state forfeiture is sought in state civil court.

In addition to concerns regarding maintenance of the property, "state civil litigation is costly and time consuming, taking as much as two years to complete," she said. "For this reason, federal forfeiture is usually preferred if at all possible. For these reasons also, since this is one of the most severe sanctions government can impose on the property rights of citizens, we proceed very cautiously."

Lima added that seizing someone's home or business "is a very serious enforcement action that we do not take lightly. We live in a very litigious world and are held responsible for our actions."

Firefighter Craig Uchimura stands in front of the large poster he designed that graces the lawn of the Waipahu Fire Station on Leonui Street.

Q: Who is responsible for that beautiful poster on the front lawn of the Waipahu Fire Station (meaning the artist)? It's so beautiful, you can't help but cry.

A: Firefighter Craig Uchimura is responsible for the tribute to fellow firefighters who perished on Sept. 11, 2001, after terrorists brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

It turns out Uchimura was a graphic designer before he decided to become a firefighter in 1996. He has been stationed at the Waipahu Fire Station, at 94-121 Leonui St., since joining HFD.

Uchimura said the fire stations all over come up with "fire prevention boards" every year, as part of Fire Prevention Month in October.

In 2001, following the 9/11 tragedy, the Waipahu station decided on the 9/11 theme. The 8-foot-by-8-foot board depicts a silhouette of a firefighter with the words: They Answered the Call/Never Forget/9-11-01.

"The (current) sign is actually the second version," Uchimura said. "The first one got destroyed in a mishap on the highway," after it fell off while being transported into town for a display.

Uchimura said firefighters sold a limited run of black T-shirts bearing the same design, sending proceeds to New York firefighters.

The sign is usually posted for a few weeks each year, then taken down.


See the Columnists section for some past articles.

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