Illegal fireworks are booming

Resident: ‘It cannot be a cultural thing, every single night from Halloween to the first week in February’

Illegal aerial fireworks light up the sky over Central Maui on New Year’s Day 2015. Maui residents are complaining over social media about loud booms in their neighborhoods, which are irritating residents and frightening children and pets. -- The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo

Waiehu resident Jeanne Reynolds was relaxing in her living room one recent evening with her 5-year-old shiba inu chewing on his favorite toy when “all of a sudden, you hear, pop, pop, pop.”

The dog “freezes, looks at me. He gets up and goes under the bed,” Reynolds said. “I don’t see him until later in the evening.”

The booming illegal fireworks “scare the bejesus out of him,” she said.

Reynolds doesn’t want to take away from the cultural traditions on the New Year’s and Fourth of July holidays, but she is concerned for the well-being of the community, pets and children as the loud booms and pops go off every night, sometimes late on weeknights.

“It cannot be a cultural thing, every single night from Halloween to the first week in February,” said Reynolds, who has written letters to county and state officials for help and oftentimes calls in violations to police.

She is not alone. Recent posts on social media show upset residents in Paia, Lahaina and especially Central Maui. They have called for a stop to illegal launching of fireworks.

What can be done?

To help police crack down on illegal fireworks, police spokesman Lt. Gregg Okamoto said, “It has to involve several cooperating agencies as any new legislation would require enforcement anyway, and the problem has to be addressed at all levels, from preventing the illegal fireworks from coming in to holding those caught with them responsible.”

In the meantime, he said anyone can make a complaint, and they should provide as much specific information as possible.

“Even if they want to remain anonymous, we would appreciate if they could direct us to a specific residence so that the offender can be contacted and informed of a complaint lodged against them,” Okamoto said. “The caller can remain anonymous and speak to an officer on the phone to ensure anonymity.”

But overall, Okamoto said that “officers need to witness the violation in order to issue citations.” Asked if police could do more patrols, he said police will increase presence in problem areas as part of normal patrols.

Fire officials, too, have said they need to view the violation in order to bring charges, and they, like police, cannot be everywhere. They say that since aerial and loud booming fireworks are already illegal, there is not much more the department can do.

Fire Services Chief Edward Taomoto said that people need to report their neighbors if they witness illegal fireworks on their street or report people who are selling or importing illegal fireworks to police.

“However, this is not likely to happen because people are usually reluctant to turn in neighbors or friends,” said Taomoto. “The best thing the community could do to reduce the importing and sale of illegal fireworks is to stop purchasing illegals.”

“If you eliminate demand, importers will get stuck with unsold merchandise, and the importing supply chain will eventually be broken,” Taomoto said.

Fire Chief Jeff Murray favors a ban on fireworks, like on Oahu. The only fireworks Oahu residents can set off legally are firecrackers with required permits.

“If a complete ban prevents just one fireworks-related house fire, debilitating injury or death, then the move to an all-out ban will have been worth the effort and sacrifice,” Taomoto said.

While even legal sparklers and fountains can be dangerous, illegal fireworks are far more dangerous because of their higher concentration of gunpowder.

“The more of it you have, the higher the propulsion and the grander the explosion,” Taomoto said

Taking video and photos

Maui County state Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, who is also an attorney, offered another perspective. Generally, any eyewitness or recording of an illegal act could be used as the basis for a prosecution.

He said it is not true that law enforcement officials have to witness people setting off fireworks; bystanders can testify and identify individuals setting off fireworks. However, a police officer witnessing an act may bring the charge and ease prosecution.

People can shoot a video or snap a photo of violators with their cellphones, Keith-Agaran and Maui County Prosecutor J.D. Kim acknowledge. Kim said a picture or a video could be used as evidence in court if the witness testifies as to the place, date and time of the video or photo and verifies the contents of the video or images.

Witnesses also may need to testify about whether the video or image had been edited, Kim said.

Under current state law, the import, transfer, sale or use of aerial fireworks without a valid permit is a Class C felony. Conviction carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Keith-Agaran said there are several bills introduced for the upcoming legislative session, which begins Jan. 17, that try to deal with the fireworks issues.

One measure would increase maximum fines under the fireworks law and appropriate funds for state and federal agencies to establish a random shipping container inspection program for illegal fireworks and explosives using explosives-sniffing dogs, he said. It would require the Transportation Department to assess a fee on all shipping containers to fund the program.

Because the fireworks are not sold in Hawaii, police and fire officials have said that people receive or purchase them from out of state. The contraband fireworks then get into Hawaii through the mail or shipping, both of which are dangerous to those handling them.

Other bills would try to address law enforcement concerns about the necessity to observe or catch an offender “in the act” of lighting illegal fireworks. One measure would allow charges to be brought if someone is in possession of illegal fireworks.

Another measure would make landowners liable if illegal fireworks are found or set off on their property. Keith-Agaran said the same measure would “make explicit in the statute what should already be the law regarding witness statements, photographs and videos of the illegal use of fireworks.”

The measure says that arrests can be made if there are statements from individuals who witnessed the offense, and they do not have to be law enforcement officers. It also says that photographs, videos or other recordings that show the commission of the offense and can be authenticated by one or more witnesses can be used to make an arrest.

Still, Keith-Agaran said that simply increasing penalties for illegal fireworks “will do nothing for enforcement unless enforcement of the fireworks law is a priority by police and the prosecutors’ office and . . . the community.”

Fireworks calls are adding up

Maui police say they see an increase in fireworks violations calls as the new year approaches and a few calls after New Year’s Day. Calls also come in around the Fourth of July.

Between Nov. 1 and Tuesday, there were 61 calls for fireworks violations, Okamoto said. The Central Maui area had the largest number of service calls, 30, with 13 in Wailuku and 17 in Kahului. In other areas, police responded to 17 calls in Lahaina, 11 Upcountry, one in Kihei and two on Molokai.

“Our patrol division is aware of the increased explosions in Kahului and have saturated the area. However, there are no specific locations or residences that have been identified. We encourage anyone that knows something to report it to police right away,” Okamoto said.

Under county law, legal fireworks and firecrackers with permits can be set off only from 9 p.m. New Year’s Eve to 1 a.m. New Year’s Day. Setting off fireworks outside the designated time is illegal as well.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.