On the face of it, Robert Lloydsmith and Robert Murray seem like lucky men. Both recently received notices from British Columbia’s Civil Forfeiture Office saying that the government agency was dropping its costly cases against them. Mr. Lloydsmith no longer faces the prospect of losing his house after a warrantless search led an RCMP officer to discover marijuana plants. Mr. Murray will now be allowed to keep the proceeds from the sale of his property, which had been seized and auctioned off after a warrantless search also led to the discovery of marijuana in his home.
B.C.’s Civil Forfeiture Office was, of course, right to stand down. In both cases, property was seized as though it were proceeds of a crime, even though neither man was ever convicted of one. Their punishments were completely out of step with any concept of justice, as they’d never been convicted of anything. But while Mr. Lloydsmith and Mr. Murray have been spared from injustice, the office’s mandate, and the law that created it, continue to allow it to operate with impunity.
By dropping these cases, the office has spared itself the scrutiny of the courts, which could have ruled on whether B.C.’s civil forfeiture law is, in fact, illegal. There is overwhelming anecdotal evidence that the office ignores the basic rules of due process. The constitutionality of the law has not yet been directly challenged in B.C’s highest court or at the Supreme Court. And its underlying flaw remains: a ludicrously low burden of proof that allows authorities to seize property without a criminal conviction or even a charge.
Why the government agency dropped its cases against the two men is anyone’s guess. It’s unclear whether the decision represents an attempt to rein in the office’s excesses. There is, however, no indication that the office will stop taking files involving potential violations of the Charter of Rights, and B.C. remains far more aggressive than other provinces in using civil-forfeiture legislation to seize property.
What’s abundantly clear is that the civil-forfeiture program needs a legal review. That’s exactly what the opposition and three MLAs from the governing Liberal Party have called for. Mr. Lloydsmith and Mr. Murray were lucky to have had their cases dropped, but their properties should have never been seized in the first place. And luck should have nothing to do with the law.
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