It can be awkward to side with the Hells Angels on a question of law. And yet, here we are. The “Motorcycle Club” is right to challenge the constitutionality of British Columbia’s Civil Forfeiture Act, a law that allows the police to seize and forfeit property that is alleged to have been used in unlawful activity – even in cases where the target has not been convicted of a crime.
The original intent of the law, versions of which exist in eight provinces, is to recover the proceeds of crime, especially organized crime. But the law has often ended up aiming at very different targets: B.C.’s Civil Forfeiture Office has an alarming track record of seeking civil punishments absurdly out of whack with the severity of a purported offender’s alleged crime, and even targeting those who have committed no crime at all.
A man faces the prospect of losing his home after an unlawful search uncovers pot plants in the basement. Landlords could lose their properties after unwittingly renting to a tenant who grew marijuana. It’s the legal equivalent of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
The underlying problem with civil-forfeiture law has to do with the burden of proof. It’s low. Neither a criminal conviction or even a charge is needed to move on someone’s property. Not surprisingly, hundreds of those targeted by the B.C. office want to fight back. But it can be prohibitively expensive to fight a civil suit, particularly when the party on the other side of the table is the deep-pocketed government. The result? In B.C., 99 per cent settle before trial, on terms overwhelmingly favourable to the office.
None of this is in the interest of justice. It is, however, most definitely in the interest of the overzealous cash cow otherwise known as the Civil Forfeiture Office. Bizarrely, it has annual targets for how much it intends to seize. It has had stunning success, netting three times its annual target in the last fiscal year – about $9.5-million in property.
Some of that goes to the victims of crime, leading the province to portray itself as Robin Hood. Bully is more like it. That’s what the Hells Angels plan to argue. They see B.C.’s forfeiture law as an infringement on their constitutional rights. They have a point.