Thousands of emergency order citations, many given to homeless, are being dismissed

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Updated: Aug. 5, 2020 at 10:22 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Prosecutors in Honolulu and Maui county have begun dismissing thousands of citations issued by police for violations of emergency orders.

Data obtained by Hawaii News Now reveals that more than 10,000 such citations were issued statewide, the majority on Oahu, and that thousands were issued to homeless people.

Homeless are exempt under the Governor’s order.

That means, sitting on the beach may get a sheltered person a ticket during COVID-19 shutdowns, but an unsheltered person sleeping in a closed park cannot be cited.

It’s a confusing issue even for law enforcement as one week people were allowed to sit on the beach in small groups, then the next week only traversing the beach was allowed.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii Executive Director Joshua Wisch actually believes the data shows a pattern of harassment.

“It seems to be that enforcement of these stay at home orders when you look at it like this is being used to harass people not to protect anybody.”

The citations for violating are a misdemeanor crime, punishable with up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

While most attention has focused on prosecution of travel quarantine violations, the data shows that the vast majority of citations were for being in closed parks.

A summary prepared by the state judiciary at Hawaii News Now’s request shows that between March 1 and June 30 of this year, 10,704 citations were issued statewide and 8,481, nearly 80% on Oahu.

As of the beginning of June 2,203 had been dismissed, with many more to dismissals to come.

Maui County Deputy Prosecutor Terence Herndon, who supervises prosecutors in District Court, says his office is now identifying citations issued to those who no address and dismissing them.

“When we do see the homeless prosecuted or cited for these types of cases we’ll have to decline those or dismiss those cases because of the exemption made by the Governor,” Herndon said.

A spokesman for the Honolulu Prosecutors office said it is following the same policy. Although no one has an estimate of how many citations involve the homeless.

“The fact that so many of them are being dismissed is a pretty good indication that they never should not have been cited in the first place,” Wisch said.

The exemption for unsheltered people, crafted by the Attorney General, was based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, which warned that displacing homeless from their usual locations could spread infections.

Hawaii News Now’s review of the data showed that many homeless individuals were repeatedly cited often by the same officers.

Maui resident Christopher Metcalf received 18 citations. At a hearing on July 14, even though Metcalf was absent, prosecutors asked that two of the citations be dismissed. The judge agreed to the dismissal “In the interest of justice.”

On Oahu, 57 year old Alan Shimabukuro, was cited 10 times for being in a closed park at Sand Island or Keehi Lagoon. Those cases are still pending.

Herndon said, “When the pandemic hit obviously everybody was on high alert and a lot of people were getting cited for these types of offenses as beaches and parks were closed.”

“Everything was new,” Herndon does not believe police targeted the homeless, rather, were under a lot of pressure to enforce the new orders even as they changed quickly.

The ACLU previously complained about extreme racial and economic disparity among the citations, especially high numbers of Micronesian, Black and Polynesian defendants, which is reflected in the judiciary data and Wisch rejects the idea that confusion over the orders explains the numbers.

The Honolulu Police Department denied there was an effort to target homeless, they say citations were given to people who resisted their orders and were committing other crimes.

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