Cracking down on ag theft: New law provides counties with an enforcement officer

  • Mitch Roth

Legislation recently signed by Gov. David Ige aims to address agricultural theft and vandalism on Hawaii Island and Maui.

Senate Bill 759 will examine the effectiveness of prosecuting such cases and calls for the hiring of one full-time enforcement officer for each county.

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Those employees will be placed within each county’s prosecuting attorney’s office or other law enforcement agency.

The law also will assess the implementation of the pilot project, identifying, among other factors, the number of convictions for agricultural theft and vandalism and best practices in a number of areas. The measure appropriates $200,000 in the 2019-20 fiscal year for the pilot project.

“We’re quite pleased this has been signed into law,” Hawaii County Prosecutor Mitch Roth said.

His office received funding from the state Department of Agriculture last year to fund an agricultural investigator, Shane Muramaru.

But the new legislation “makes it more formalized,” Roth said. “We’ve seen some pretty good things working with the farmers, educating people … .”

Agricultural theft is common, he said.

“On our island, we have farmers, we have people that live here that subsidize their living or make their entire living based on agriculture,” he said. “When people steal from our farmers, it not only takes food off of their plates, we’re forced to look other places for our food.”

According to the legislation, agricultural theft and vandalism have been a constant threat for farmers and ranchers on Hawaii Island and Maui, increasing the cost of production and making it more difficult for such operations to be successful.

Individuals who grow food or other agricultural products for their own use or for sale might also be targets of theft and vandalism. Hawaii-grown coffee, for example, supports hundreds, if not thousands, of people, said Roth, but agricultural crimes can affect the quality of the products.

“Agricultural theft, while not a sexy kind of crime people think about, it’s a very important industry to protect because it not only protects those people, but also protects the island economy.”

Ken Love, executive director of the Kona-based Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers Association, said he has “very positive feelings” about the new legislation, and that Muramaru has been a “great asset to growers combating theft around our island.”

Theft has been a personal problem for Love.

He has one jackfruit tree near a roadway and “last week, twice I chased people out of there.”

And not a week goes by without reports of theft or other problems shared on the association’s Facebook page, he said.

Many people don’t want to call the police directly, Love said, but after talking with Muramaru, they feel more comfortable making reports.

Muramaru has been “really good working with people getting them to understand the long-term benefits of working within the system to report the thefts … .”

Hawaii Farm Bureau President Randy Cabral, based in Volcano, and said SB 759 is an “important piece of legislation.”

“I think it sets up somebody who will make agricultural theft a priority,” he said.

SB 759 received broad support in written testimony submitted throughout the legislative process.

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“Agricultural theft can be tough to prove and even tougher to prosecute,” Brian Miyamoto, executive director of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, wrote in submitted testimony. “While we agree that this measure may not resolve implementation of our current agricultural theft laws or enforcement efforts, it will provide the prosecutors another tool to help prosecute individuals suspected of agricultural theft. HFB continues to work with both the police and prosecutor’s office to find ways we can work together to help deter, apprehend, and convict individuals that are committing agricultural theft.”

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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