Recovering Legal Fees After an Acquittal or Dismissal in Hawaii


Recovering Legal Fees After an Acquittal or Dismissal in Hawaii

Being acquitted or having criminal charges dismissed can be a huge relief, but the legal fees from defending yourself can still cause financial hardship. In Hawaii, there are a few ways that a defendant may be able to recover attorneys’ fees after an acquittal or dismissal.

Hawaii Revised Statutes Section 607-14

Section 607-14 of the Hawaii Revised Statutes allows for the recovery of reasonable attorneys’ fees in civil actions for assumpsit (implied contracts) and on promissory notes or other contracts in writing that have attorney fee provisions[1].

This statute caps the recoverable attorneys’ fees at 25% of the judgment amount. It states:

In all the courts, in all actions in the nature of assumpsit and in all actions on a promissory note or other contract in writing that provides for an attorney’s fee, there shall be taxed as attorneys’ fees, to be paid by the losing party and to be included in the sum for which execution may issue, a fee that the court determines to be reasonable; provided that the attorney representing the prevailing party shall submit to the court an affidavit stating the amount of time the attorney spent on the action and the amount of time the attorney is likely to spend to obtain a final written judgment, or, if the fee is not based on an hourly rate, the amount of the agreed upon fee. The court shall then tax attorneys’ fees, which the court determines to be reasonable, to be paid by the losing party; provided that this amount shall not exceed twenty-five per cent of the judgment[1].

So if a defendant had a written fee agreement or contract with their defense attorney, and they were acquitted or had the charges dismissed, they may be able to recover up to 25% of any related judgment under Section 607-14.

For example, if a defendant was acquitted of theft charges, but had $10,000 seized that was ordered returned, they could potentially recover up to $2,500 in attorneys’ fees under this statute by suing civilly. The fees would need to be reasonable based on time spent, rates, etc.

Hawaii Revised Statutes Section 607-14.5

Section 607-14.5 of the Hawaii Revised Statutes allows courts to award attorneys’ fees and costs if claims or defenses made by a party are deemed frivolous[3].

This statute states:

In any civil action in this State where a party seeks money damages or injunctive relief, or both, against another party, and the case is subsequently decided, the court may, as it deems just, assess against either party, whether or not the party was a prevailing party, and enter as part of its order, for which execution may issue, a reasonable sum for attorneys’ fees and costs, in an amount to be determined by the court upon a specific finding that all or a portion of the party’s claim or defense was frivolous as provided in subsection (b) [3].

If a prosecutor is deemed to have brought frivolous charges against a defendant who is later acquitted or has the charges dismissed, the court may award reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs under Section 607-14.5. The defense would need to show that the charges were frivolous and without merit.

This could provide a route to recover legal fees, but the frivolous standard can be difficult to prove. It provides courts discretion in awarding fees for frivolous civil claims or defenses.

Vexatious Litigants Law

Hawaii also has a vexatious litigants law that allows courts to declare someone a “vexatious litigant” if they bring repeated frivolous litigation[4].

If a prosecutor is declared a vexatious litigant by the courts, they can be required to post security for the defendant’s attorneys’ fees and costs if they bring further charges against the defendant that are dismissed or acquitted.

To be declared a vexatious litigant, the prosecutor would need to have a pattern of bringing frivolous, harassing charges against a defendant. But if established, this can provide a way for a defendant to recover fees for defending against repeated meritless charges.

Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP)

Hawaii has an anti-SLAPP law that can be used to recover attorneys’ fees if criminal charges are deemed a strategic lawsuit intended to silence or harass the defendant. This is found in Chapter 634F of the Hawaii Revised Statutes.

Hawaii’s anti-SLAPP law allows a defendant to file a special motion to dismiss and recover attorneys’ fees and costs if charges are shown to be intended to prevent their constitutional right to petition or free speech[5].

This covers communicating on issues of public interest, so it would likely apply in many cases of alleged wrongful prosecution. If granted, the special motion to dismiss allows recovery of attorneys’ fees and costs related to defending against the charges.

Payment of Fees by the State

In rare cases, the State of Hawaii may voluntarily pay a defendant’s attorneys’ fees if charges were clearly improper and payment is approved by the legislature.

For example, in 2000 the State of Hawaii paid $1.2 million to defendants wrongly prosecuted in a high-profile murder case. This voluntary payment required legislative approval[6].

While rare, this option exists if there was clear misconduct and the legislature agrees fees should be paid.

Federal Civil Rights Lawsuits

Acquitted defendants or those with dismissed charges can also potentially recover attorneys’ fees by bringing federal civil rights lawsuits against prosecutors or government entities.

Federal law allows fee recovery in civil rights cases under 42 U.S.C. Section 1988. This allows courts to award reasonable attorneys’ fees to a prevailing party in an action brought under federal civil rights statutes.

To recover fees this way, an acquitted defendant would need to successfully sue for civil rights violations such as malicious prosecution, fabrication of evidence, withholding exculpatory evidence, etc.

If successful, the court can award attorneys’ fees both for the civil rights case and for defending against the original criminal charges.

Tips for Recovering Attorneys’ Fees

Here are some tips for defendants seeking to recover legal fees after an acquittal or dismissal of charges:

  • Consult with your defense attorney about the options available based on the specifics of your case. Different legal mechanisms have different requirements.
  • Keep detailed records of all legal costs and fees related to your defense. This includes bail costs, legal fees, expert fees, lost wages, etc. Document everything.
  • Consider hiring an attorney on a contingency fee basis for any potential civil action so fees are only paid if recovery is successful.
  • Don’t delay in exploring options to recover fees. There are statutes of limitations on civil actions.
  • Be patient and persistent. Recovering fees can involve lengthy legal processes and appeals.
  • Explore all sources of funding if legal fees are awarded but not actually paid by the state or prosecutors. This may include victim compensation funds, civil rights organizations, online fundraising, etc.
  • Getting acquitted or having charges dismissed is just the first step. Be prepared for further legal fights if you seek to recover defense costs.

Recovering attorneys’ fees after beating criminal charges can be an uphill battle, but options exist in Hawaii law. With good legal help and perseverance, recouping some of the costs of defending yourself is possible. Don’t be afraid to explore all avenues and fight for compensation if unfairly prosecuted.