Pubdate: Fri, 16 Sep 2016
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2016 The Globe and Mail Company
Author: Sunny Dhillon
Page: S1


A judge has ruled that British Columbia's Civil Forfeiture Office
cannot seize assets unless they are tied to unlawful activity, a
decision that a lawyer in the case says is an important precedent.

The case began in November, 2015, when the forfeiture office began an
attempt to seize property from several people charged in an RCMP
investigation into a marijuana trafficking network one month earlier.
The office - a government agency that has been criticized for its
aggressive attempts to seize homes, vehicles and cash connected to
criminal offences, even from people who have not been convicted or
charged - named six of the men who were charged as defendants in the
civil-forfeiture case.

One of the men and his wife applied in B.C. Supreme Court earlier this
year to have part of the notice of civil claim thrown out. Counsel for
Stephen and Jennifer Lockett argued that the director of the Civil
Forfeiture Office failed to show a link between their property - three
homes and two vehicles - and unlawful activity. The couple said the
director, citing Mr. Lockett's criminal record, had claimed that even
if their property was obtained using legitimate income, it could still
be forfeited because they engaged in criminal activity and used
illegitimate income to support their lifestyle - including the
purchase of clothing, food, entertainment and travel.

The couple argued that the Civil Forfeiture Act does not allow the
office to seize property bought with legitimate income just because
lifestyle purchases might have been made with ill-gotten gains.

A judge late last week agreed with the couple and ordered several
paragraphs to be struck out of the notice of civil claim.

"I agree with the lifestyle argument of the applicants," Justice
Kenneth Affleck wrote in the ruling.

"The Act cannot be construed to permit the director to seek to forfeit
property unless it is the proceeds of unlawful activity or an
instrument of unlawful activity."

Joseph Arvay, one of the lawyers representing the couple, said he is
hopeful the director will drop the case against them altogether.

Mr. Arvay said the Civil Forfeiture Act allows the forfeiture only of
property that can be traced directly or indirectly to the proceeds of
criminal activity.

"This is an important decision as it provided a check on what is
otherwise an already potentially excessive use of the director's
powers to use the civil forfeiture provisions as [an] end-run around
the more rigorous and rights-protecting features of our criminal law,"
he wrote in an e-mail.

Mr. Arvay said he believes the director has been employing the
lifestyle claim "rather routinely" and the ruling will likely affect
other cases.

A B.C. Ministry of Public Safety spokesperson, when asked for the
director's reaction to the ruling, said in an e-mail that the matter
remains before the courts and it would be inappropriate to comment.

"The office is reviewing Friday's ruling. All cases that proceed to
court are dynamic and, as such, decisions about whether to proceed or
cease a particular action are constantly reviewed with the office's
counsel," the statement read.

The statement said the director would not comment on the ruling's
potential impact on other cases.

The Globe and Mail has reported extensively on the Civil Forfeiture
Office, which was created as a way to fight organized crime but has
come to have a far broader reach.

Critics have questioned some of the files it takes on, calling it a
cash cow.

The office argued in court that "this is the very type of organized
crime the Act was explicitly legislated to deter and suppress."

Mr. Lockett's criminal case is ongoing. He was one of 13 people
arrested in an investigation the RCMP called Operation Hagrid.

In addition to seven men arrested in B.C., five men and one woman were
arrested in Nova Scotia.

The RCMP said at the time that Mr. Lockett was charged with conspiracy
to traffic marijuana.

The Civil Forfeiture Office marked its 10th anniversary at a ceremony
in Surrey on Thursday. It has seized nearly $66 million in property
since it opened.
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