State charges Maui riot detainees thousands for damages, triggering federal civil rights lawsuit

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The state has sanctioned 18 inmates over the Maui jail riot this spring — not with criminal charges yet, but with financial penalties for thousands of dollars each. Always Investigating and has the story.

The state stands to retrieve tens of thousands of dollars toward damage estimated at $5.3 million. One inmate, though says his money was unfairly taken, and he’s filed a federal civil rights lawsuit. legal experts say he is likely right about due process.

In March 2019, a riot broke out at the overcrowded Maui Community Correctional Center, causing so much damage to two separate housing modules that dozens of pretrial detainees had to be sent to the Halawa Correctional Facility prison on Oahu.

Many of them are still there, including one — Bronson Bascar — who this week told the federal court in a civil rights complaint that he was charged $2,716 without adequate due process.

Always Investigating asked the Department of Public Safety what happened, and they told us that 18 inmates were found guilty and sanctioned, either $1,358 or $2,716 a piece, depending on whether DPS said they had a role in just the MCCC fire, or the fire and the riot.

“We’re concerned that there might be due process violations here,” Josh Wisch, executive director of the ACLU, told Always Investigating after we sent the organization the case to review. “We are concerned that there may be policies that weren’t followed. We’re concerned that PSD doesn’t actually have the authority to take the detainees’ money like this. We’re concerned that it all stemmed from jail overcrowding in the first place.”

DPS said in a statement: “Inmates were administratively adjudicated based on the adjustment hearings process.”

They’re internal policies,” Wisch points out. “They’re not even administrative rules, which means that they weren’t subject to public comment. Generally speaking, before an agency can levy sanctions like this and collect especially monetary sanctions like this, there usually has to be a specific delegation of that authority from the legislature, and it doesn’t appear that kind of a delegation was ever really made here.”

Wisch says there is federal 9th Circuit Court precedent that disallows such monetary confiscation in the absence of specific authority.

Bascar says it wasn’t done fairly. He says DPS split damages equally even though “two separate modules had a tremendous amount of difference in property damage” and he was charged a high amount even though he was in the module with less damage.

Bascar’s public defender tells me she’s surprised what DPS did with the across-the-board restitution penalties, and surprised they admitted it. The public defender points out pretrial inmates like Bascar have been subject to difficulties in legal representation after their move to Halawa.

She had a hard time getting the facility to let her talk to her client, and once a plea deal was reached, she says there were multiple delays in getting him transported for key hearings on Maui. It was just today, Oct. 30, that Bascar was sentenced on a range of theft, property crime and drug cases he agreed to plead to shortly after his spring move to Oahu.

As for the financial penalties, Always Investigating asked DPS, did they follow the process in their own rules, things like advance written notice of charges, an opportunity for the inmate to respond, and keeping inmates fully informed about the outcome?

Their spokesperson said the department “complied with the process as dictated by COR.13.03 with staff from MCCC conducting hearings at Halawa Correctional Facility.”

Criminal charges related to inmate participation in the riot have not yet been filed, just these administrative financial penalties so far. DPS and the Maui Police Department spokespeople pointed to each others’ departments when Always Investigating asked for status of any such charges.

MCCC is slated for millions in improvements and expansion that is supposed to ease the overcrowding and conditions that triggered the event.

“It seems as though a lot of the people affected (by the money sanction) were pre-trial detainees, people who by definition are not there to be punished, they are there just because they are awaiting trial,” Wisch said, “and as we pointed out in our bail report considering that the median bail amount on Oahu for example is $11,000 for a Class C felony, a lot of the people who are there are awaiting a trial just because they can’t afford to get out. So these are people who aren’t supposed to be getting punished, they’re just awaiting trial, but they’re clearly being punished and possibly without the due process protections to which they’re entitled. This really all goes back to the fact the jails are wildly overcrowded and that is the state’s fault, not these detainees fault.”

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