The city’s crackdown on homelessness in Waikiki — meant to make things nicer for tourists, is causing some visitors big legal problems.
In order to keep the homeless from settling in overnight, the city began closing popular beachfront parks in Waikiki at midnight. A violation brings a criminal citation.
According to the City Prosecutors Office 20 percent of those citations, one in five, is going to visitors, for whom the criminal charge and its mandatory court appearance can be more than just an inconvenience.
Jalisa Jose and several friends from Idaho were on Queen’s Beach at Waikiki about 2 a.m. on March 31, 2015, the morning after her 21st birthday, during their spring break from college. She said police officers approached them, and were written citation.
Jose said they didn’t realize they were breaking the law by sitting on the world-renowned beach. Although there are signs posted about every 50 yards along the Kalakaua Avenue sidewalk.
“A couple nights before we were on a beach where it was okay to be on late at night so we didn’t really know,” she told Hawaii News Now from her home in Lewiston, Idaho.
The citation set a court date of May 27, which she missed. That could lead to a criminal warrant.
Another of the friends wrote a letter asking the court to allow her to plead guilty by mail — even though she wrote she was unaware of the park closure times.
Attorneys say tourists hit with citations have no easy out. They can hire an attorney or write the prosecutor’s office for permission to plead guilty by mail, but fighting the citation is even more difficult, because you must be present in court for trial.
Attorney Victor Bakke has had several visitors ask him for help after receiving citations. If they choose to pay the fine, they have a criminal mark on their record, a big problem for non-citizens, when they try to return to the U.S.
“So if customs finds the criminal violation they could actually be refused entry into the country,” Bakke said.
Hawaii News Now also heard from a Toronto woman who ended up with a criminal warrant after missing her court date.
The police department says officers do issue warnings, but can’t make exceptions just for visitors.
Bakke points out that the police may be worried about being sued by advocates for the homeless. “They have the absolute discretion,” Bakke said. “It’s my understanding though that the policy is not to exercise that discretion, because they don’t want to look like they are discriminating against the homeless people,” Bakke said.
The mayor’s office confirmed the police can’t just give visitors a break. Spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke told Hawaii News Now,”Police have to enforce the laws equally against everyone. They don’t target homeless in park closure enforcements.”
Some tourists have told attorneys and court workers they are often so upset they vow never to return.
So a policy meant to make Waikiki more inviting for visitors, is sending some away from Hawaii for good.