Attorney general considers legality of inspecting cargo for illegal fireworks

The push to stop illegal fireworks from coming to Hawaii may hinge on the state attorney general’s opinion on whether the state has the authority to inspect cargo containers.

State Sen. Will Espero tells KHON2 he’s drafting a proposal to randomly inspect the containers after Honolulu police say illegal fireworks can be blamed for the death of Liona Spencer, 38, on New Year’s Eve.

But the state attorney general has questioned whether the state has the authority to do so, so we pressed him Thursday to find out why some searches are allowed, but not others.

The state already checks shipping containers at Honolulu Harbor when Christmas trees come in from the mainland, so we wanted to get a clear answer as to why it would be different if the state checks for illegal fireworks.

Attorney General Doug Chin says the state inspection of Christmas trees falls in a different category than inspecting shipping containers for illegal fireworks.

“For Christmas trees, I think the authority to be able to search containers would be for health reasons. There would be an authorization from the Department of Health or their laws to be able to do something,” he said.

“If it is in a sense for public safety, doesn’t (fireworks) cross into that area also?” KHON2 asked.

“There might be, but I think we’d have to find the right health authorization to be able to do that,” Chin replied.

Chin says because the inspections for illegal fireworks deal in criminal law, the rules are different. There are concerns with invasion of privacy.

“Given the fact that… the shipping containers are being placed on state property, will that be enough to be able to mandate to inspect them?” KHON2 asked.

“I’d have think about that, because I think it’s not — again there’s a privacy concern that I think we’d have to analyze it,” Chin said.

“Even at the airport, how they inspect luggage or they sniff out luggage, that wouldn’t be the same thing?” KHON2 asked.

“I think you’re trying to tease out more of an opinion from me than I’m ready to give,” Chin said.

Chin says he will give his legal opinion to Espero soon.

We also checked with the state Department of Transportation, which had some concerns with the proposal in the past. A spokesman released the following statement:

“Ocean surface transport of cargo is critical to Hawaii’s economy as the state imports 80 percent of all goods consumed, and 98.6 percent of these imported goods are delivered through our commercial harbor system. The HDOT Harbors Division recognizes that every resident of Hawaii relies on the goods that arrive here through the commercial harbors and is improving harbor infrastructure to be better equipped to adapt to changing needs and trends in the cargo shipment and transport industry.

“The HDOT supports the intent of legislative measures aimed at reducing the number of illegal fireworks entering the state, however the HDOT must balance proposed solutions with its mandate of operating an efficient harbor system. The HDOT wants to ensure any additional inspections of cargo containers do not negatively impact commerce by delaying delivery and distribution of the hundreds of thousands of cargo containers and contents that move through the harbor system each year.

“We reserve any additional comment until we receive and review the proposed legislation.”

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