Senate Bill 540: What Is Next For Emergency Period Penalties?

Picture of Karl-Rhoads

By: J. S.

Breaking emergency order rules may soon be punishable with a ticket and a $200 fine. Senate Bill 540 proposes streamlining the process of fining citizens for disobeying the governor or mayors’ emergency rules as Hawaii continues its current state of emergency that began in March of 2020. Previously, those who were cited for breaking emergency order rules faced larger fines and misdemeanor charges that could include up to a year in jail.

The bill was introduced in January by Representative Rhoads of House District 29. The bill has passed through the House and Senate and was enrolled to Governor Ige on April 20.

SB 540 states its purpose is to “allow for lesser emergency period penalties to be adopted by the governor or a mayor. Allow for the emergency period infractions to be processed under the traffic adjudication process. Allow electronic copies of notices of infractions, infraction adjudication hearings, and notices of infraction judgments to be sent via electronic mail, and grant the district court concurrent jurisdiction over emergency period rule infractions committed by minors.” The bill still allows for heavier penalties for rule breaking, including fines up to $5,000 and up to a year in jail.You can read the full bill here

During 2020, over 60,000 emergency order violations were cited on Oahu. Citizens of the state and island visitors were cited for breaking the governor and mayors rules which included things such as not wearing masks and only being present at the beach if exercising. Among those who were charged with their first criminal offense was the Surgeon General of the United States, who, according to the Office of The Public Defender, was adamant that he was wrongly accused and wanted his day in court.

Both the Office of the Public Defender and the Department of the Attorney General support the bill. The testimony given by both departments indicates the belief that SB 540 would unburden the court system and encourage the public’s compliance with emergency order rulings. 

The high number of citations, a heavy burden on the people of Hawaii, included an abundance of court visits and fines for minor infractions. In testimony supporting SB 540, the Office of The Public Defender gave one example of an individual who was represented by the office in a three-day jury trial. The individual was charged with one count of violation of the emergency rules and one count of closed park. After the defendant declined a plea offer and defended their innocence, making approximately 15 pre-trial court appearances, a jury acquitted the defendant of all charges. 

A large number of homeless individuals were also cited for breaking rules. The Office of the Public Defender mentioned that some were charged over 20 citations, and some up to 9 citations a day. Often this demographic does not show up in court, and therefore a warrant is issued for their arrest. The whole process burdens both the individual and the court for simple matters such as not wearing a mask a certain way.

What does emergency period infraction mean? According to the bill, an “emergency period infraction” means all occurrences of noncompliance with rules adopted by the governor or a mayor pursuant to chapter 127A, which are stated and designated in the rule as being an emergency period infraction.”

Each week we look at current House and Senate Bills in the Hawaii State legislature. There are many useful and insightful resources available for citizens who are interested in learning about or engaging in Hawaii’s legislative process. Learn about current bills at capitol.hawaii.gov. Upon finding bills of interest, it is possible to read the full bill, follow the bill’s progression through the House and Senate, and submit testimony through this same website. An insightful resource for those looking to understand steps in the legislative process is A Citizen’s Guide to Participation in The Legislative Process, available on the capitol.hawaii.gov website.