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Bills to reduce blood alcohol content and increase penalties on vicious dog cases pass out of Senate committee

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The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony Tuesday morning on several measures, including Senate Bill 2384, which would reduce the blood alcohol content level in Hawai‘i from .08 to .05, and SB 2692, which would increase penalties for owners whose dogs attack animals and people.

Both bills passed without opposition from the committee, moving the measures forward in the legislative process.

SB2384 passed unamended with five ayes and one reservation from Hawai‘i Island Sen. Joy San Buenaventura.

If passed into law, Hawai‘i would be the second state in the nation to lower BAC from .08 to .05 behind Utah.

Sara Haley spoke on behalf of the office of the Public Defender who opposed the measure for several reasons, saying the first is that it will criminalize behavior of responsible drinkers.

“The bill casts too wide a net,” Haley said. “A BAC below .08 can already be prosecuted.”

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The public defender’s office is also concerned about how lowering the threshold will overburden the police departments as well as the legal system.

“We would need significantly additional funds for more prosecutors, public defenders and courtrooms,” Haley said. “We are already overburdened with OVUI cases as it is.”

Tasha Yamamoto from ‘Ele‘ele, supports the bill as she lost her father to alcohol and addiction.

“In our small community on Kaua‘i, I’ve witnessed countless fatalities from individuals driving under the influence and feel that it’s time to put an end to this,” Yamamoto said.

SB2692 along with its companion measure, HB2058, has garnered widespread support statewide as concerns over the rise of dangerous dog attacks are leaving people and animals injured and in some cases dead.

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The bill passed the committee with amendments 5-0.

There was opposition to the measure.

Haley also testified saying there are several constitutional issues including due process as well as equal protection issues with this proposed law as written.

“There’s no way for dog owners to challenge the decision or to bring their own evidence,” Haley said.

Shannon Matson has testified on the Senate bill as well as its House bill companion measure expressing her support as she lost her father, Bob Northrop in August 2023 after he was mauled by four dogs in Ocean View.

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Charges have yet to be filed against the dog owner, which has been frustrating for Matson’s family.

“Every single county says they can’t prosecute, yet the public defenders’ office is saying this is duplicative,” Matson said. “If it is duplicative, it’s not indicated very well because it’s not serving any of us who are demanding justice for our loved ones.

“The public has certain expectations that the state and county are there to protect our communities when awful things happen. They’re supposed to be systems in place to keep those things from happening again and provide justice to families and victims.”

Additionally, Matson said that the lack of penalties for owners of vicious dogs, perpetuates a cycle of a lack of accountability.

Teresa Tico, a private practice attorney on Kaua‘i, testified Tuesday saying that in her 46 years of practice on the Garden Isle, she’s handled and is currently representing a number of dog bite cases.

“I’m absolutely alarmed by the increase in dog attacks and serious injuries that I see in my clients since COVID,” she said.

While she supports the bill Tico raised concerns that the punishments weren’t severe enough. If a dog maims or kills other animals the owner faces a misdemeanor. Tico thinks it should be a class C felony.

Tico thinks it should be a class B felony if a dog maims or kills a person. As the bill is written, it’s a class C felony.

It’s a petty misdemeanor for owners whose dogs attack or kill another animal or a person, according to a county law.

Michelle Edwards, a Kaua‘i resident was attacked by a loose pit bull while walking her small dog on the beach she was injured and her dog was killed.

Edwards doesn’t think the bill carries strong enough punishment. Under the proposed bill, the death of her dog would be charged as a misdemeanor.

“This is not a misdemeanor,” she said.

Coming up on Friday, the Senate Ways and Means Committee will hold a public hearing on the measure addressing the legalization of recreational marijuana.

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