The lawsuit seeks to end HPD’s unchecked practice of letting officers abuse their police powers for personal purposes.
Honolulu, Hawai‘i: On Monday, October 26, 2020, Jennifer and Jorge Rivera, on behalf of their high school son, J.R., filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court against the City and County of Honolulu (“City”), the Honolulu Police Department (“HPD”), and several HPD officers. As detailed more fully in the complaint, J.R. was being bullied by an HPD officer’s son. One day in November 2018, J.R. was forced into a fight with the officer’s son at school. The next day, that same HPD officer showed up to J.R.’s school, and—in full view of teachers and students—arrested J.R. Without reading J.R. his Miranda rights or notifying J.R.’s parents of his arrest, the HPD officer, with the help of another HPD officer, then took J.R. to the police station, shackled him by his hands and feet, and put him into a locked cell. The complaint alleges that this HPD officer—with a clear conflict of interest—abused his power to retaliate against and terrorize J.R., and that HPD permitted and sanctioned his behavior.
The plaintiffs are represented by the Law Office of Eric A. Seitz, Revere & Associates, LLLC, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawai‘i (“ACLU of Hawai‘i”).
The complaint, filed this morning in the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaiʻi, describes the November 9, 2018 incident at the center of the lawsuit in detail. That morning, after learning that his son initiated a school-based fight with J.R. the previous afternoon, HPD officer Kirk Uemura maliciously filed a false and misleading police report alleging that J.R. had engaged in criminal harassment against his son. Shortly after filing that police report, officer Uemura—in uniform and in his patrol car—trailed J.R.’s school bus and, upon arriving on campus, turned on the police car’s flashing lights. As soon as J.R. got off the bus, officer Uemura forcibly seized J.R., and subjected him to an unlawful search, detention, and harassing interrogation, all in plain view of surrounding students and staff. Officer Uemura then called another HPD officer to assist with the arrest. After that second officer arrived, they formally placed J.R. under arrest and transported him to the police station, where J.R. was placed in leg shackles and handcuffs, fingerprinted and photographed, and detained alone in a cell, still shackled and cuffed. The officers did not notify the Riveras about their son’s arrest until nearly 90 minutes after the arrest and transport to the police station.
As a result of the incident, J.R. and his parents alike suffered severe emotional trauma and distress. That trauma was magnified by officer Uemura’s repeated appearances at J.R.’s school after the family had filed a disciplinary complaint. Because of J.R.’s trauma, the family was compelled to transfer J.R. to a new school. Officer Uemura also appeared at J.R.’s new school on one occasion and locked eyes with him, which the family considered an intimidation tactic. Additionally, the family was required to attend mandatory counseling based on the incident, and J.R. also has a record of arrest that may have far-reaching consequences throughout his lifetime.
Plaintiff and parent Jenna Rivera said: “What my son had to endure at the hands of the HPD was extremely traumatic and has had a massive negative impact on our son, our family, and our lives. These officers were bold and confident in retaliating against a 15-year-old child to exact revenge on behalf of an HPD officer’s son. It appears they wanted to make an example out of my son and to send the message that ‘you don’t mess with one of our own.’ They saw no issue with taking personal matters into their own hands and using their powers as police officers to seek revenge. If these HPD officers were willing to frame a minor with no just cause, no proof, and no investigation, that raises the question: what else has HPD done—or what else would they do—to someone else who got in their way? Someone needs to put a stop to the injustices caused by HPD acting on personal vendettas.”
Apart from the arresting officers, the lawsuit seeks to hold mid- and senior-level HPD officers, as well as the City itself, accountable for causing or permitting such abuses of power.
To that end, the complaint names HPD sergeant Artie Kendall—who was in charge of the police station to which the arresting officers brought J.R.—for expressly condoning, defending, and ratifying officer Uemura’s abuse of power. Specifically, when J.R.’s parents arrived at the station and learned that it was the father of J.R.’s bully who had conducted J.R.’s arrest, they asked HPD sergeant Kendall to explain why an officer was permitted by HPD to effectuate the arrest of his own son’s enemy. In response, sergeant Kendall approached Jorge Rivera and with his right forefinger tapped his police badge, exclaiming “that’s what gives him the right to do what he did.”
Attorney Terry Revere said: “What sergeant Kendall did to defend officer Uemura’s conduct is reprehensible. We know that police officers take their cues from their superiors. When a sergeant or commanding officer is presented with a situation involving a clear abuse of power and then expressly condones that abuse, that only perpetuates and amplifies the problem throughout the ranks of the police department. Let this lawsuit serve as a reminder that supervisory officers are just as responsible as the arresting officers for what happened to J.R.”
The lawsuit also seeks to hold the City and HPD directly liable on two main grounds. First, for failing to have required policies and procedures that would detect and manage conflicts of interest, preclude officers from influencing or participating in any law enforcement process relating to matters in which they have private or personal interests, and train and discipline officers appropriately for violating such restrictions—which, had they existed, would have prevented HPD’s violation of J.R.’s constitutional rights. Second, for having a de facto policy of permitting HPD officers’ selective enforcement of the law and abuse of law enforcement power in connection with personal matters. The complaint details a string of similar abuses of power, including that involving former HPD Chief of Police Louis Kealoha, who, working in concert with various HPD officers and using HPD resources, targeted and falsely accused his own family members of crimes to further his own personal and financial interests.
Attorney Kevin Yolken said: “That HPD officers orchestrated the arrest of a 15-year-old boy as a personal vendetta is emblematic of a culture of impunity that is firmly entrenched in HPD’s rank and file—one that permits, condones, and encourages the misuse of police powers and resources with regularity. This culture of impunity long predates what happened to J.R., and infects the entire ranks of HPD as we learned most recently during the Kealoha corruption scandal. We hope this lawsuit will serve as a catalyst for change within HPD, and as a reminder to officers that nobody is above the law.”
The ACLU of Hawaiʻi earlier represented the Rivera family in filing police disciplinary complaints against officer Uemura with the Honolulu Police Commission and HPD’s Professional Standards Office. As part of the effort to hold officer Uemura and others accountable and to prevent future abuses of power, in February 2019, the ACLU of Hawaiʻi wrote to Chief Ballard about J.R.’s arrest demanding that the officers involved be disciplined and that HPD “adopt policies and trainings that would prevent these abuses and constitutional violations (including a policy on conflicts of interest).” HPD did not adopt any such policies in response to the letter. And while both the Honolulu Police Commission and the Professional Standards Office “sustained” the disciplinary charges against officer Uemura, the only information that the Rivera family received is that “corrective action was taken,” which is both vague and meaningless.
ACLU of Hawai‘i Staff Attorney Wookie Kim said: “We have tried for almost two years to use the police disciplinary process to hold HPD and its officers accountable for the egregious abuse of power committed by officer Uemura and others against J.R., and to convince HPD to implement adequate policies and procedures to prevent future abuses. Yet all we have at the other end of that long process is the very same lack of policies and little to no information about how, if at all, the officers involved were disciplined for their egregious abuse of power. Given the lack of accountability, we saw no other choice but to sue.”
Among other things, the plaintiffs ask the court:
• To declare that J.R.’s arrest, search, detention, and interrogation were unconstitutional and unlawful;
• To require Defendants to stop continuing to violate Plaintiffs’ rights;
• To require HPD to enact adequate policies, procedures, and training to identify, disclose, prevent, and manage conflicts of interest in law enforcement;
• To expunge any and all criminal and/or arrest records for J.R. generated as a result of the incident;
• To award damages to the family for the harm suffered; and
• To award reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.
ACLU of Hawaiʻi Executive Director Josh Wisch said: “HPD has recently dismissed calls for police reform. Chief Ballard has belittled them as ‘a knee-jerk reaction for things that are going on the mainland’ and pleaded: ‘[T]he nation is behind, but can you at least leave the 50th state alone? We’re kind of doing OK here.’ This lawsuit is only the most recent example that we are not ‘doing OK here.’ Racial disparities in how HPD uses force and issues citations. No uniform law enforcement standards. Constant harassment of people who are unsheltered, which—against public health advice—continues during the pandemic. Over 58,000 needless COVID-related citations. And a 15-year old boy arrested by an HPD officer motivated by personal vengeance. The list continues. We’re not doing OK here, and the ACLU will be increasingly involved to argue for, push for, and explain why we can’t leave policing in Hawai‘i alone.”