Pubdate: Thu, 19 May 2011
Source: Victoria Times-Colonist (CN BC)
Page: A1
Copyright: 2011 Times Colonist
Author: Rob Shaw
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)


New Law Allows Province to Bypass Courts in Forfeiture Cases of Less
Than $75,000

B.C.'s proposed new civil forfeiture rules, which will allow the 
government to seize small amounts of cash and property without going 
to court, are troubling infringements on people's civil rights, critics say.

The government bill amends B.C.'s existing civil forfeiture law by 
adding an administrative process for cases involving less than 
$75,000 worth of cash, jewelry, cars and other items alleged to be 
profits of crime.

Under the existing law, the government must go before a judge for 
permission before it can seize items and later auction them. The 
court case is publicly documented.

But the proposed amendments bypass the courts in cases of less than 
$75,000, and lets a government bureaucrat heading the civil 
forfeiture office decide whether police evidence justifies a seizure. 
The evidence and explanation are not presented in court.

The process ends up before a judge only if someone opposes the 
seizure, or claims to have an interest in the forfeited property. The 
bill passed third reading in the legislature this week and is set to 
become law within weeks. Solicitor General Shirley Bond

said the changes let the government target proceeds of crime more 
easily, while removing costly legal fees that make seizing small 
items too expensive. In one-third of almost 250 civil forfeiture 
cases so far, no one has contested the seizures, she said. The 
Opposition NDP and the

B.C. Civil Liberties Association have attacked the legislation, 
saying it infringes on people's rights by giving the government 
sweeping powers to seize property without proving, or even alleging, 
any wrongdoing in court. "It has the power to, in effect, be the 
judge and the jury and the executioner," said NDP MLA Nicholas 
Simons. "If a less benevolent government came along, and I say that 
tongue in cheek, there's a potential for abuse." The new rules create 
a "backup plan" for police agencies which cannot get enough evidence 
to have charges approved by Crown prosecutors but which can instead 
get bureaucrats to authorize seizures, NDP MLA Kathy Corrigan said 
during debate in the legislature this week. Bond rejected that 
description, but described a hypothetical example where police could 
use civil forfeiture to seize items in a nuisance home that was the 
subject of 500 complaints in a community but not any criminal action.

The proposed legislation faced constant criticism from the NDP over 
how any civil forfeiture on items believed to be the proceeds of 
crime could occur without anyone actually being charged with or 
convicted of criminal activity.

"The criminal process is entirely irrelevant," said Rob Kroeker, 
executive director of the government's civil forfeiture unit. 
Forfeitures occur under civil law, where the issue is not guilt or 
innocence but whether property was acquired lawfully, he said. About 
half the cases under the existing law occur in cases where no 
criminal charges were laid, he said.

Kroeker takes police evidence and weighs it on a "balance of 
probabilities . that there has been a connection with the proceeds of 
crime," said Bond.

Replacing a person's day in court, where they are presumed innocent 
until proven guilty, with a bureaucrat's administrative decision, 
means any police forfeiture case "would have to fail the babbling 
idiot's test" in order to be unsuccessful, said Rob Holmes, president 
of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

"Government quite often gets things wrong," he said. "If you don't 
really have the opportunity for a day in court . then people really 
don't have any ability to complain and have justice done."

Kroeker said people still have the option to appeal decisions.

Civil forfeitures have earned the government $17 million since 2005.

Bond said the government is taking a "reasonable approach" to 
protecting civil rights while being tough on criminals. "This isn't 
about circumventing rights or the court process," she said.

The province has already concluded nearly 250 forfeitures in court, 
without losing a single case, which proves the system works, Bond said.
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