B.C.’s Justice Minister says she’s confident the province’s Civil Forfeiture Office has only pursued cases in the public interest – though the government agency has just recently abandoned two long-standing files that raised serious concerns about how evidence was obtained.
Suzanne Anton, who has stood by the office since a Globe and Mail investigation earlier this year raised questions about fairness and transparency, reiterated her support Wednesday.
She said she has discussed the concerns with officials, and that the office only takes cases recommended by police if the law and evidence are on its side.
“I have fundamental support for the system because I know it is done with good reason and with good authority,” Ms. Anton said.
The Globe’s investigation found that the office, which was created in 2006 to fight organized crime, has come to have a far broader reach. The office does not need a conviction or even charges to pursue a file, and B.C. has been far more aggressive in seizing property than other provinces.
Critics have said the penalties handed out in civil-forfeiture cases can be wildly disproportionate to the alleged offence and called the program a cash cow.
There have been calls from three B.C. Liberal caucus members, the Official Opposition, and both a former solicitor-general and a former attorney-general for a review.
Ms. Anton has said there is no need for a formal review, but indicated Wednesday that she has discussed the concerns that have been raised with the office.
She said the office can’t be expected to succeed in 100 per cent of the cases it takes on.
“The vast majority of cases do succeed because the office is very careful about the cases they do move forward with,” she said.
In April, the office abandoned the case of David Lloydsmith. A judge had earlier ruled a warrantless police search of Mr. Lloydsmith’s home that turned up marijuana plants was in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Charges were never laid against him, but the Civil Forfeiture Office went after Mr. Lloydsmith’s modest residence, taking the matter all the way to the province’s highest court before suddenly throwing in the towel.
The Globe reported earlier this week that the office has now also abandoned the case of Robert Murray, which raised similar concerns. Mr. Murray planned to argue that a February, 2012, police search of his property that yielded 72 marijuana plants violated his Charter rights because it was conducted without a warrant. He, too, had not been charged.
Tonia Grace, a lawyer who has worked on approximately 10 civil forfeiture cases, said she has noticed something of a change in the office’s approach after the barrage of criticism.
She said she still has her share of criticism of the office but, “to be fair,” lawyers for the agency have exhibited less of a hardline stand of late.
“They seem to be trying to be more reasonable about continuing with some of these cases where they don’t really have a case, where they’re just trying to fish, fish, fish, fish, fish,” she said in an interview.
Ms. Grace said the office has long tried to stretch the files out, making them as financially draining for defendants as possible.
But she said one of her long-running cases just settled because her clients received an offer they felt they couldn’t pass up. She declined to discuss the specifics, since the court proceeding has not been finalized.
“I do think, and maybe I’m being hopeful, that some of the lawyers have been taking more of a practical approach to these cases,” she said.
Jay Solomon, another lawyer who has worked on several civil forfeiture cases, has said he has not seen much of a change in the office’s conduct.