Honolulu City Council Takes New Approach to Combat Illegal Game Rooms


HAWAII- Two Honolulu City Council members are proposing innovative legislation to address the persisting issue of illegal game rooms. Instead of solely relying on law enforcement, these bills aim to hold landlords accountable for hosting such operations.

Introduced on Wednesday, one bill seeks to grant the Department of Planning and Permitting the authority to levy fines of up to $1,000 per day, with a cap of $150,000, on landlords who facilitate illegal game rooms. Additionally, this bill empowers the Corporation Counsel to place liens on these properties, even if criminal charges are not pursued.

Another measure aims to enable collaboration between the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) and the Department of Planning and Permitting, allowing designated police officers to enforce penalties for building code violations in potentially unsafe locations for building inspectors. This strategy has been employed to exert pressure on property owners.

Council members Tyler Dos Santos-Tam and Andria Tupola believe these measures will discourage busted game rooms from re-establishing their operations. A non-binding resolution will also be proposed, urging HPD and the Department of Planning and Permitting to join forces and share evidence to combat illegal game rooms.

The proposed legislation comes after recent legislative efforts to target game room staff, elevating the crime of promoting gambling to a felony.

"We want these to end. Full stop," expressed Dos Santos-Tam, emphasizing his commitment to resolving this issue.

Tupola, who has witnessed 16 active game rooms in her district, sought to address this concern in 2021 through land use code legislation, but faced challenges. Collaborating with Dos Santos-Tam, they explored alternative approaches to combat this problem effectively.

By authorizing specific HPD officers to enforce code violations on behalf of DPP inspectors, Tupola hopes for swifter and safer enforcement. She emphasized the importance of prioritizing safety, considering the potential risks associated with inspecting game rooms.

Current enforcement measures against illegal gambling rooms often yield weak penalties for landowners. Cheryl Inouye, a senior adviser in the Honolulu Prosecutor’s Office, did not make a deputy prosecutor handling game rooms available for comment.

Police Maj. Mike Lambert, overseeing narcotics and vice enforcement, noted that over 100 game rooms may be operational across Oahu on any given day. He emphasized the need to hold property owners accountable, as many arrested individuals serve as scapegoats.

While the city explores this new tactic, it is important to note that those orchestrating game rooms often remain elusive. These operations are frequently linked to organized crime, with multiple factions overseeing Oahu's game rooms. 

Community members like Patty Kahanamoku-Teruya, a vocal critic of game rooms, hope that these bills will be instrumental in eradicating this longstanding problem and holding property owners responsible for their role in facilitating these illicit activities.