EXCLUSIVE: Liquor inspectors stopped from making arrests, using handcuffs

Published: Mar. 4, 2013 at 10:29 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Honolulu Liquor Commission Administrator Greg Nishioka told his investigators to refrain from arresting people and stop using handcuffs and other gear following an incident of alleged excessive force by two investigators about one year ago.

Beginning in August of 2005, the Honolulu Liquor Commission began "defensive training" for its investigators and issued them protective gear, including pepper spray, handcuffs and batons.

But Hawaii News Now has learned on March 6, 2012 Nishioka issued a two-sentence memo immediately suspending liquor investigators from making arrests and prohibiting them from using defensive equipment in the field.

"Effective immediately, personnel … are temporarily suspended from the authority to effect any arrests, except in exigent circumstances, and only after approval of an on-scene supervisor," Nishioka wrote. 

"Additionally, all personnel are temporarily prohibited from carrying ‘secondary defensive weapons' including but not limited to the following: batons, handcuffs and pepper spray," Nishioka's note concluded, without explaining why the changes happened. 

Nishioka was placed on paid leave Thursday, after news reporters found out he had resigned from the practice of law in order to avoid discipline for 47 ethical violations involving his private law firm.

Acting Liquor Commission Administrator Anna Hirai said Nishioka made the changes to arrest and gear policy last spring because the agency needed approval and authority from other city agencies for investigators to use the gear and make arrests when they were in the field, enforcing liquor laws at Oahu bars, nightclubs and restaurants.  She said lawyers from the Corporation Counsel's office and officials from the city's Human Resources Department needed to OK the practice.

That memo came following an incident that happened late one night in early 2012 outside the 7-11 store at McCully Shopping Center.

A drunk Kaneohe marine officer tried to get into the car of two liquor investigators, mistakenly thinking it was a taxi, because he wanted a ride home, a source said.

The incident was caught on video by surveillance cameras at the shopping center, which showed the investigators using excess force and putting handcuffs on the man.

"The guy didn't commit any crimes," said one witness who asked to remain anonymous, fearing reprisals from people at the Liquor Commission. "He jumped into the wrong car.  He was intoxicated and confused.  They (the liquor investigators) harassed him and provoked him into an incident."

An investigation revealed the investigators, who were recently-hired contract employees, used their own personal gear, including handcuffs and a baton in the incident.

When a Liquor Commission supervisor arrived, he had the man released from handcuffs, a source said.  Police officers called to the scene did not arrest the marine, who was a captain, sources said.

One of the investigators later resigned from the commission and the other was hired as a permanent, civil service employee there, Hirai said.  A source said the one who resigned was forced to quit over his behavior that night, but Hirai said she did not know why he departed the commission.

Reached for comment Monday, Liquor Commission Chairman Mike Yamaguchi said Nishioka never told him about either the 7-11 incident or the policy change on arrests and use of gear by investigators, even though this all happened about one year ago.

Nishioka also did not tell Yamaguchi, other liquor commissioners, his coworkers or representatives of Mayor Kirk Caldwell's office about his ethical problems before the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the office of the state Supreme Court that investigates wrongdoing by lawyers in Hawaii, according to spokespeople for all of those city agencies.

Even though the legal ethics investigation lasted months and was filed with the state Supreme Court Feb.11, Nishioka kept all of it secret until Hawaii News Now began calling city officials about the case Thursday morning.

He blamed his lawyer for not notifying city Liquor Commission officials about his ethics problems.

Nishioka resigned from the Hawaii bar instead of facing discipline and admitted to misappropriating clients' funds, engaging in deceitful conduct at his private law firm and failing to answer questions by investigators in the ethics case, among other things.

Nishioka said last week he saw his legal ethics problems as separate from his $104,500-a-year city job and did not intend to resign.  The commission placed him on paid leave late Thursday afternoon, while they investigate and decide what to do next.

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