By Suzanne Anton
Minister of Justice
Eight years ago, our government took a significant step forward to help ensure crime doesn't pay in B.C. Those people who previously benefited from the proceeds of crime or who used property for unlawful activity now had consequences beyond possible criminal charges.
B.C.'s Civil Forfeiture Office (CFO) takes referrals from police departments around the province and targets ill-gotten gains. While some have recently questioned whether this process is fair, I can assure you that the office takes a number of measures to ensure that due diligence is done before accepting a referral, and then again before any forfeiture proceedings are initiated.
There are four criteria the CFO uses to decide whether to move forward on a file. Is there sufficient evidence? Is the action in the interests of justice? Is it in the public interest? And finally, does it make economic sense to litigate this action? In addition to a thorough review of the file by the CFO, a second review is performed by lawyers representing the CFO before all claims are filed.
Every single British Columbian who is involved in a civil forfeiture claim has the opportunity to appear before a judge in the BC Supreme Court to tell their side. The Supreme Court of Canada has reviewed and upheld civil forfeiture laws in Canada and B.C. courts have reviewed and upheld the validity of our own BC Civil Forfeiture Act.
There are other significant checks and balances in place to ensure fairness. In fact, while police may put a hold on the property during proceedings, it isn't forfeited to government until a settlement is reached, or until the court determines that the forfeiture is warranted - both of which must be approved by a judge. In effect, the Civil Forfeiture Act is reviewed every time a case goes to court as B.C. courts continue to make important decisions regarding the legislation, resulting in ongoing refinements to the program.
As regular practice - and as with any program - the CFO always works to ensure there aren't unintended consequences. During the administrative forfeiture process, the CFO goes to lengthy measures to notify people when it is making an application to have their property forfeited, including sending them registered mail and posting a newspaper ad in their local paper. To dispute this process, the person only needs to mail their sworn affidavit back to the CFO within the required time. People who claim they didn't receive notification still have recourse even if they fail to respond in time.
Due in part to the strength of the cases referred by police, the vast majority of the time not only is the application for forfeiture successful but the cases have improved public safety. Take for example the armoured vehicle forfeited from a major organized crime figure which had been used in the commission of a crime. This person was later targeted in an assassination plot outside a Kelowna casino and was recently arrested during a high-profile drug bust in the Philippines.
In another example, the CFO successfully forfeited a problem house in a family neighbourhood in Victoria that police had visited 206 times over the course of eight years, including raids by tactical teams that turned up weapons and drugs. The CFO met with the neighbours, took affidavits from them about how their lives had been negatively impacted and was then able to successfully negotiate a settlement to facilitate the removal of the problem from the neighbourhood as quickly as possible.
Overall, by proceeding under the rule of law, by ensuring the four conditions are met before proceeding on any case, and by fulfilling all the checks and balances in place with oversight from the courts, the CFO is making British Columbia safer. Not only is it taking away proceeds of unlawful activity, but it is returning them to those who need them the most, namely the communities and victims who are impacted by crime. Specifically, $11 million in forfeited property and cash has been returned in the form of grants to victims, to communities and to crime prevention organizations.
Now, more than ever, crime in B.C. does not pay. But I can assure you that we will continue to be fair and thoughtful - yet tough - with how the Civil Forfeiture Office pursues proceeds of unlawful activity, wherever it happens in our province.