From taggers to copper thieves: Bring them on
By Peter Carlisle
Have you checked out The Hot Seat? It's our opinion-page blog that brings in your elected leaders and people in the news and lets you ask the questions during a live online chat.
On The Hot Seat last week was Honolulu Prosecutor Peter Carlisle.
Below is an excerpt from that Hot Seat session.
Ritchie Augustin: To address the growing and out-of-control graffiti problem in Hawai'i, what are some of your ideas in bringing this silly crime to commission? How can you prevent graffiti from getting more out of control?
Carlisle: We should follow the lead of Charleston, South Carolina. They have people who are specifically assigned to paint over graffiti wherever it is. They have a hot line for people to call in to, and then city workers are dispatched. They need to be able to do this immediately without permission from the owner. This will take legislative action.
Lava: Peter, I can only assume you share my frustration about repeat offenders. Each night, we hear on the news of some criminal offense. When the accused is identified, his or her record is reported, and the person oftentimes has a record with 30 prior convictions, or so it seems. Did the criminal justice system not get the clue after the fifth conviction? The 10th? The 20th? The system seems broken when the deterrent effect is having no deterrent effect. How can we change this?
Carlisle: I do share your frustration about repeat offenders. This has been a problem for decades. We have repeat-offender statutes on the book for felonies. These have been very effective until recently. Judges have been using a particular loophole to defeat the purpose of the statute. Misdemeanors, with the exception of driving under the influence of alcohol, are not subject to repeat-offender statutes. We need to close the felony loophole and increase misdemeanor subjects to repeat offender sentencing. This can only be done by legislative action. Proposals for such action have been offered many times and rejected by the Legislature.
John: Peter, we recently had a conviction for copper theft/purchasing but have now seen instances where copper pipe is being stolen. Do you see any end in sight for this category of crime? Can we be more aggressive in prosecuting the buyers of the stolen copper?
Carlisle: Once we have legislation passed that targets copper dealers and thieves, we will be in a better position to impose harsh sanctions. The Honolulu Police Department is aggressively targeting theft of copper. This aggressive enforcement and hopefully successful prosecution with significant sanctions are a first step in reducing the number of these offenses.
Coffee: I was very disturbed to read about the sad story of the couple that was beaten in Waikele. Do you think the father and son will be able to get a "just" punishment or will they end up walking away with a slap on the hand?
Carlisle: It is hard to predict what is going to happen in Juvenile Court or how a Circuit Court judge will sentence. We can promise that these offenses are going to be prosecuted vigorously toward a just result. That result would include in my opinion significant punitive sanctions and not just a slap on the wrist.
Robert: Too many repeat offenders; any chance of stronger enforcement of the three-strikes rule or enacting the death penalty? Regarding judges being too easy on criminals: Anything being done to hold them accountable?
Carlisle: The Legislature passed a three-strikes law. It will only apply to the worst of the worst. There is little likelihood of a death penalty being enacted in Hawai'i. The federal government does have such a penalty and under the appropriate circumstances (it) can be applied to an offense that occurs here. Holding judges accountable is difficult since they are not elected. They can be criticized when they are up for retention before the Judicial Selection Commission. Public input is helpful in this regard.
John: Your standard answer so far seems to focus on the need for legislative action and the failure of the Legislature to take necessary action. Has your office made efforts to take the issues to the public — what you want with rationale — in time for the public to "influence" the elected officials?
Carlisle: The Law Enforcement Coalition, which includes prosecutors, police and the attorney general, routinely requests public input and assistance in influencing elected officials. If an elected official hears from constituents, the likelihood of their taking action increases exponentially.
JM: I feel that you could do a better job if others in Hawai'i's system weren't so easy on criminals. In today's news, three people were arrested for stealing copper from the Pali — do you plan to play hardball (no plea deals), or are they going to get the usual "slap on the wrist" so they can continue their job of ripping off the taxpayers here?
Carlisle: We prosecuted aggressively and seek prison terms in appropriate cases. Plea bargains that are not in the interest of community safety are not approved. So hardball it is.
Smiles Manoa: Why was Jeremy Harris never prosecuted for the campaign contribution violations?
Carlisle: The campaign contribution prosecutions were highly successful. We were only able to prosecute cases that were supported by probable cause. As a result of an absence of evidence, there was not probable cause to prosecute our former mayor.
John Hisashima: I understand that the circumstances of the Waikele beating do not meet the criteria to be classified as a "hate crime," and therefore the suspect will not be eligible for an extra five years' imprisonment. However, I do not understand how after such a vicious beating that the suspect is only looking at a maximum sentence of five years' imprisonment. This man not only punched a woman in the face but also slammed her on the ground. I feel that any ordinary person who read this article would be appalled at the idea that this man might only have to spend five years in prison. I know that the prosecutor's office does not create the laws, but why hasn't more been done to create new laws that allow for stiffer penalties in cases such as this? This man should face the possibility of spending at least 10-15 years in prison.
Carlisle: Our assault laws require a certain level of injury starting with pain and going all the way to serious bodily injury. The injuries sustained only support a charge of assault in the second degree, which carries a five-year term. In fact, there was a time when such an assault would have been merely an assault in the third degree with the potential of only one year in prison. Happily, the Legislature many years ago included broken bones to elevate an assault to a five-year felony. I know there is much frustration regarding the Waikele case because of its despicable nature. My office is ethically bound to enforce the laws as written.