A bill that would criminalize trespassing on state lands has made its way through the Hawaii House of Representatives and now heads to the state Senate for consideration amid controversy about its intention and implementation.
The measure was proposed by Gov. David Ige a year ago, but died in the Senate after opponents raised serious concerns about the intention of the bill and whether it could be used to criminalize homelessness or punish protesters who gather on state property. Despite the criticism, the governor re-introduced the bill this year and has continued to push for it. Administration officials call it an important crime prevention tool that will allow the state to better preserve and protect its lands.
The controversial measure -- Senate Bill 895 -- would allow officials to arrest violators for trespassing on state land, making it a petty misdemeanor, which is the least serious type of criminal offense in Hawaii, but one that is still punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.
The governor's office says the bill is needed to protect against people remaining on state land when it is closed or otherwise restricted. It would apply to all agricultural and state owned property regardless of whether it is fenced, enclosed or otherwise secured to exclude intruders, unpermitted hikers, thieves and vandals. It includes on and under state highways.
Officials clarify that existing criminal trespass laws only apply to private property, including dwellings, hotels, apartment buildings, private schools, commercial properties or areas that are fenced or enclosed.
The measure passed a full House floor vote Thursday with overwhelming support from state agencies, including the Attorney General's Office, the state Transportation Department, Public Safety Department, Education Department and Land Department. State officials say it will be crucial in protecting the lands, property, and facilities under its jurisdiction. The Attorney General's Office described it as an important crime prevention tool that will allow officials to preserve and protect state lands.
The state's homelessness coordinator, Scott Morishige, has defended criticism that the bill will be used to criminalize homelessness, saying the goal is to combat theft and arson on state property, but more importantly, it will address public safety concerns raised by the presence of individuals in areas where they should not be.
Opponents have raised serious concerns that, if passed, the bill will penalize the poor and subject them to a criminal record, which may make future attempts to reestablish themselves as contributing members of society all the more difficult.
In addition to the harm it could cause homeless individuals, critics have warned that it could also be used to punish cultural practitioners, protesters and hikers – concerns that lead to the bill dying last session.
The bill is strongly opposed by many organizations, like the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which believe it will limit constitutionally-protected Native Hawaiian traditional and customary practices because it would make travelling through or occupying state lands an arrestable offense.
The ACLU takes an even stronger stance against the measure, saying criminal trespass laws and other regulations prohibiting the use of public lands are often used to punish dissenting speech. More specifically the ACLU testified that the bill seemingly targets protesters such as those who demonstrated at Mauna Kea.
The Sierra Club of Hawaii says under the authority proposed in this bill, any state agency can close public land for an unlimited amount of time and for no particular reason as long as a sign is posted. The nonprofit says this would lead to unknowing members of the public -- be it hikers, hunters, surfers, fishermen, canoe paddlers, cultural practitioners -- suddenly becoming criminals.
The bill now heads to the Senate where lawmakers will vote on the amendments made in the House.