Farmers and law enforcement officials expressed their frustrations Monday evening in a community meeting about agricultural theft in Honomu.
The meeting, hosted by County Councilwoman Heather Kimball, was originally scheduled to be in person at Honomu Gym, but was moved online because of the current surge in COVID-19 cases on the Big Island.
Jack Jimenez, identified by Kimball as the constituent who reached out to her with his concern about ag thefts, said he and his fellow area farmers “just feel frustrated that we don’t feel there’s anything being done.”
“And if you look at the statistics and crimes, the ones that the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) has put out, Big Island’s had the most ag theft crimes of any of the islands around, and they just keep increasing over the years,” Jimenez said.
According to a USDA report on Hawaii agricultural theft and vandalism, a survey showed Hawaii County had $1.583 million in ag theft losses in 2019 and another $217,000 in vandalism losses, both statewide highs. The report also indicated Hawaii Island farmers and ranchers spent $9.583 million on security measures in 2019, about two-thirds of the statewide total.
During the meeting, which was attended by South Hilo Community Policing Officers Darren Abalos and Aaron Abalos, and County Prosecutor Kelden Waltjen, Jimenez said it “doesn’t seem like there’s been anybody pursuing” ag thefts.
“I mean, there’s been some recent thefts we’ve had in the area,” Jimenez said. “They just don’t seem to want to do anything, at least the police officers on site. And it’s frustrating, you know, because the governor’s talked for years about trying to have agriculture provide more food for the islands.
“But yet, we don’t see anything change in ag theft. And I know there’s an ag form for the transferring of products that’s been around since 2004, but has it ever been enforced? Because we have seen a lot of fruits in terms of the third-party vendors, and we know where it comes from — we just can’t prove it, but we know, just by the large amounts of it.”
Police in May released a statement that anyone who sells an agricultural product marketed for commercial purposes, or transports agricultural commodities weighing more than 200 pounds or with a value of $100 or more, legally requires an “ownership and movement certificate,” and noncompliance could result in a Class C felony charge.
Officer Darren Abalos said prosecution of agricultural theft suspects is “difficult … unless we catch them in the act.”
“Realistically, that’s what it is. It’s hard,” he said. “You guys have video surveillance of these people at your farm. … We know who the persons of interest are. We make contact with them — me, my brother, other community officers, patrolmen. … We traffic stop them. We go to their houses. We’re almost borderline harassing these guys. We never catch them with any fruits, any evidence. We know these are the guys stealing, but by the time we get to them, the fruit’s already been moved. … If we don’t have nothing to weigh, there’s nothing to charge them for.”
The maximum penalty for conviction of a Class C felony, Waltjen pointed out, is a five-year prison term, but added first-offenders are more likely to be sentenced to four years of probation and a possible jail sentence of up to a year.
“We’ve been trying to take a proactive approach — providing education in the community, educating our vendors, as well as assisting police by conducting compliance checks at different farmers markets as well as other produce (sellers) around the island,” Waltjen said.
Abalos said police recently made rounds of the farmers market vendors.
“A lot of them didn’t have that form or that receipt that is to be provided upon purchase, but we weren’t making cases at that time,” he said. “I guess the idea is, between us and the prosecuting office, is that we’re going to warn them at least two or three times, which is what we’re instructed to do, and if they don’t provide (the required form) at that time, then we can generate cases against them.”
The Office of the Prosecuting Attorney used to have funding for a dedicated investigator for ag theft, but doesn’t at this time.
“We have not recovered the funding for the position,” Waltjen said. “… Instead, what our office has done in prioritizing agriculture theft under our new administration is that we’ve spread the responsibilities of agriculture theft over all our investigators.”
Waltjen said the best way to reduce the crime is to take a community approach with everyone working together.
Abalos told farmers things they can do to give themselves an opportunity for a better outcome are to report crimes as they happen, make sure properties are fenced and have video surveillance, have a guard dog, and to not arrive and leave at the same time daily because thieves are casing the properties and take notes about patterns in comings and goings.
Kimball said Tuesday she considered the meeting “productive” and added there was an agreement to hold the meetings quarterly.
“I know this has been a lingering problem for the whole area, not just Honomu, for a long time,” she said. “We’re talking quite a bit of money here when you consider all of the different folks who are having this challenge, so I want to spend some more time on it.
“I think if you’re talking about just a virtual meeting versus an in-person meeting, it would’ve been more helpful to have been in person. But I think this is the kind of thing where this is just the first step to an ongoing conversation.”
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