After spate of tragedies on Oahu roads, city prosecutor pushes for jail time in more traffic cases

In the wake of several high-profile fatal crashes, Honolulu’s prosecutor has changed his policy on plea agreements in traffic court in hopes of making the roads
Published: Mar. 23, 2023 at 4:29 PM HST|Updated: Mar. 23, 2023 at 9:52 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - In the wake of several high-profile fatal crashes, Honolulu’s prosecutor has changed his policy on plea agreements in traffic court in hopes of making the roads safer.

City Prosecutor Steve Alm predicts the change will mean repeatedly unlicensed or speeding drivers will go to jail more often, but public defenders say it could lead to many more seeking trials to avoid conviction.

In order to avoid clogging the courts, prosecutors for years have been willing to deal down criminal traffic offenses to non-criminal citations. But after recent tragedies involving repeat offenders, that policy is changing dramatically.

“This is really serious. We have dangerous roads now and we have got to get people to pay attention,” Alm said, in an interview with Hawaii News Now.

The death of 16-year-old Sara Yara on her way to school ― and her courageous mother’s campaign to get tougher on chronic traffic criminals ― brought more public attention to the practice of plea agreements that allowed repeat offenders to avoid jail.

HNN began reporting on the issue in January after discovering that the driver charged in the deaths of a tourist couple in Kahuku was unlicensed and had avoided penalties, including more than $3,000 in fines sent to collection agencies. He, too, had plea agreements when he could have been sentenced to some time in jail.

Alm says that’s changing now.

“If they have multiple priors then we are going to try and seek some jail time,” Alm said. “It doesn’t have to be a long time but any time in jail is going to get their attention.”

Alm said he has ended plea deals for:

  • First-time drunk driving;
  • Excessive speeding (either 30 miles over the speed limit or 80-plus miles per hour);
  • and for driving without a license.

He said his office is beginning to review suspects’ driving records before they come to court and warning defendants what they face.

In one example, Alm said for someone who drives without a license, his office will recommend fines for the first two offenses, 10 days in jail for a third, and more time for offenses after that. Judges will decide the final sentences.

“We cannot control what the judges will do,” Alm said. “We will hope they will take this just as seriously as we do.”

The Office of the Public Defender is already seeing the tougher attitude from prosecutors, according to Jerry Villanueva, supervisor of public defenders at District Court.

“The deputies are encountering prosecutors saying there are no deals in certain cases,” Vallanueva said.

He said defendants facing jail or a criminal record will ask for trials, where police officers and other witnesses will have to be called and testify.

Even in a speeding case with evidence from speed radar, officers must be called to confirm the equipment was tested and accurate before it was used.

“It’s actually going to load up the courtrooms with all these cases going to trial and there is only a limited number of cases that can be heard each day,” Villanueva said.

Alm conceded that, but said his office is prepared.

“The public defenders may well not go along with that as the plea agreement,” Alm said.

“Fine we’ll have a trial; these cases are pretty straightforward to prove and it may take some trials for them to realize we can prove the case we are ready to go this person needs to get a consequence.”

Hawaii News Now’s investigation showed that many repeat offenders have accumulated hundreds or even thousands of dollars in unpaid traffic fines. Alm hopes his new policy will help get back some of that money.