City prosecutor explains why man arrested inside stolen car was not charged

For the past two weeks, we’ve been pressing the city prosecuting attorney’s office to explain why a man police arrested inside a stolen car was released without charges.

On Friday, Honolulu prosecutor Keith Kaneshiro gave us his explanation. He spoke openly about the case, because it’s now closed.

The victim, who did not want to be identified, told us that someone broke into his house and stole his car, along with the keys.

Officers arrested a man who prosecutors say was inside the car with the engine off. A spokesman told us two weeks ago there was not enough evidence because there were no witnesses.

As for why so many auto theft cases were dropped by the prosecutor’s office even after detectives determined there was enough evidence, Kaneshiro said a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling from eight years ago makes it difficult to prove car theft cases beyond a reasonable doubt.

Read more: Supreme Court ruling | Dissenting opinion | Journal review

When it comes to car thefts, Kaneshiro says the Supreme Court ruling allows suspects a defense called mistake of fact. Suspects can say somebody gave them the authority to drive the car, so they didn’t know it was stolen — even if the car’s owner said the car had been stolen.

“Because Hawaii case law says if that person felt that whoever told him to use the car had authority, then he’s entitled to that defense,” Kaneshiro said.

He says there has to be a witness, or some type of damage to the ignition or doors to show force of entry, or if the suspect was found within an hour or two of the car being stolen.

“If it was one day later, then it might be more difficult, because in that one day, he could have got authorized from somebody else,” Kaneshiro said.

In our initial story, the car was found a day later. Since then, we’ve also pressed Honolulu police for data on how many auto theft suspects have been charged.

We found out last year, the Honolulu Police Department opened 324 cases in which a suspect was identified. Officers made 276 arrests and prosecutors charged 142 suspects, or 51 percent of those arrested.

We also learned that there were 191 conferrals, which is when HPD recommends to the prosecutor’s office that the suspect get charged. But prosecutors still declined 46 of them. That’s 24 percent or one out of four.

Kaneshiro says there’s nothing wrong with that.

“If the detective feels there was enough evidence, that’s not good enough one out of four times?” KHON2 asked.

“The detective didn’t go to law school. Can the detective tell you what the law is, the case law is?” Kaneshiro replied.

We also asked Kaneshiro to address the frustration from police officers after they told the victim to contact us when no charges were filed.

“What we got from police officers is a sense of frustration for them to tell the victim you should call our station, because they felt something was wrong with what’s going on here,” KHON2 told Kaneshiro.

“If they’re frustrated, what do you think we feel? We’re just as frustrated,” Kaneshiro said. “You think we don’t want to support the police in their charges?”

We asked Kaneshiro if the law needs to be changed, and he said yes.

We’re looking further into the Hawaii Supreme Court ruling to see if it can be interpreted differently. We’ll let you know when we find out.