In wake of fatal crashes, Hawaii lawmakers want crackdown on unlicensed drivers

After two crashes that killed a teenager and a tourist couple, lawmakers are seeking action to crack down on delinquent unlicensed drivers.
Published: Feb. 20, 2023 at 5:20 PM HST|Updated: Feb. 20, 2023 at 7:50 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -After two crashes that killed a teenager and a tourist couple, lawmakers are seeking action to crack down on delinquent unlicensed drivers.

Years ago, to reduce the backlog at traffic court, the state decriminalized most traffic offenses, but driving without a license remains a crime that usually forces unlicensed drivers to come to court.

But former Honolulu Police Department Deputy Chief John McCarthy said that doesn’t mean the offense is treated seriously enough.

“It’s about the way it’s handled, you know,” McCarthy said. “The police out there trying to do their job. And, you know, it gets frustrating for the police.”

And many say the result is recklessness — like the head-on crash that killed Ron and Michelle Hartman in Kahuku last August. Brennan Canumay is charged with manslaughter after years of violations.

And last week’s hit-and-run that killed 16-year-old Sara Yara. The suspect, Mitchel Miyashiro, had committed scores of traffic violations, including repeatedly driving without a license. The incident, in a crosswalk on Kapiolani Boulevard, behind McKinley High School, was in the District of state House Speaker Scott Saiki.

“This death could have been avoided if this guy had been given some jail time earlier on,” Saiki said.

State Senate Transportation Chair Chris Lee said he supports a bill ramping up mandatory penalties, including jail, for repeat unlicensed drivers.

“And make sure that not only prosecutors and judges and everybody else have the tools to do it but also that there’s an expectation that that’s going to be the result,” Lee said.

Saiki said the Legislature needs to absolutely step in and assess our current laws to see how we can strengthen them. But McCarthy and Saiki suggest prosecutors and judges could already ramp up.

Court records show Miyashiro received multiple plea agreements from prosecutors — including one in 2020 — when the state the agreed to recharge him with a second offense even though it was at least his 7th offense. He paid $387 fine.

Former deputy chief McCarthy says prosecutors could demand jail time.

“It is available already, you know, it’s at the discretion of the prosecutors in the way they handle the case they have prosecuted, and it’s at the discretion of the judge for sentencing,” McCarthy said.

After the Kahuku case, a Hawaii News Now investigation revealed that the suspect owed over $3,000 in unpaid traffic fines and routinely skipped court appearances.

In an interview, Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald said they were asking the state collection agency to ramp up collections of unpaid fines, but was also open to doing more to ensure violators were punished.

“There should be consequences if people ignore the law,” Recktenwald said. “That’s certainly something we are aware of and we are open to finding different strategies to make it more effective.”

Honolulu Prosecutor Steve Alm was not available to comment Monday, which was a state holiday.