Criminal cases from drunk driving to excessive speeding are being jeopardized by twists and turns in the years-long federal grand jury that’s been looking into former Honolulu police chief Louis Kealoha and his wife, Katherine, a deputy prosecutor.
Last year, Honolulu prosecuting attorney Keith Kaneshiro told us his office was looking into police wrongdoing tied to traffic citations. Since then, defense attorneys have used that information to create delays and even win dismissals.
Some answers from prosecutors have raised more questions for the federal grand jury.
Among the allegations under investigation, whether Katherine Kealoha fixed a traffic ticket for a friend by appearing in court and making a claim of mistaken identity.
Kaneshiro, her boss, told Always Investigating this past December: “It was not how it has been portrayed in the media that she gave a friend a benefit. That that did not occur. There is an ongoing investigation involving that case.”
The investigation was looking into whether HPD officers were trying to maximize pay for court appearances with “ghost” or excessive ticketing, or taking bribes to not appear in court, which helps cases get dismissed. The person Kealoha went to court for was among those affected by that alleged scam.
“As a result, that person agreed to cooperate with us and there’s a cooperation agreement that was done with that individual, signed by me,” Kaneshiro said.
His statement caught the ear of several defense attorneys around town, including DUI attorney Jonathan Burge, who began filing a slew of motions in dozens, if not hundreds, of cases, everything from speeding to drunk driving, to question the credibility of arresting officers in their cases.
Attorney David Fanelli has not used that approach, but sees it in court regularly lately.
“There’s a notion that there must be a bunch of cops involved in this, and so perhaps where some attorneys in the past wouldn’t have gotten so involved in filing motions, they are doing it now,” Fanelli said. “The idea is that if this officer was somehow engaged in some kind of ghost ticket thing and they lied in that fashion, then this same officer who pulled my guy over could be lying about his driving, his performance on the standardized field sobriety test.”
No proof of that has come out from any of the motions yet, but it has affected some serious cases all the same.
“There’s definitely more court congestion, which is always a concern with everybody, and then there are cases that are getting dismissed for violations of right to speedy trial or rule,” Fanelli said.
It’s spilling over into the very federal grand jury that’s weighing whether there really is or was a ghost ticket investigation involving as many as five officers, or if it’s a story to cover up a favor for a friend.
One of the many drunk driving and speeding cases using the ghost-ticket credibility defense yielded a written response from a deputy prosecutor stating a particular officer was not a suspect in any criminal investigation “at this time,” and another deputy’s statement in court clarifying there never was past or present.
A prosecutor spokesperson told Always Investigating: “Not every deputy would know about investigations that go on in this office because of confidentiality.”
“The front line, prosecutors, the deputies, I hate to use the term plausible deniability, but they really don’t have a lot of this information in front of them,” Fanelli said.
That hasn’t satisfied the federal grand jury. Besides pressing Kaneshiro himself in at least four federal courthouse appearances, they’ve widened the scope to subpoenas of several of his deputies.
Kaneshiro says he’s not received a target letter, something the feds eventually send if you’re in possible criminal trouble. Kaneshiro says he’s not aware of any deputies getting one either.
So if the ghost ticket cases are real, where are those local prosecutions?
Kaneshiro had told us last year the federal grand jury threatened to derail his digging, and sources told us federal witnesses had been told not to talk to county authorities.
“Let me just say the federal prosecutor has been interfering with our investigation,” Kaneshiro said.
The Honolulu Police Department told us there is no investigation of a ghost ticket scam going on internally at HPD.
We’re still waiting to hear from the prosecutor’s office on what prosecutors are doing to ensure that legitimate tickets and charges stick, and how delays can be minimized to prevent dismissals.