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Gary Mason, Globe and Mail national affairs columnists, in 2010. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Gary Mason, Globe and Mail national affairs columnists, in 2010.

(John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Civil forfeiture can harm innocent people Add to ...

When it was first introduced, there seemed little not to like about the idea of governments seizing the proceeds of crime by bad guys.

If people were going to run a drug operation out of some multimillion-dollar home on the west side of Vancouver – one likely purchased from the dough made from selling dope – they needed to know that if they were criminally convicted, not only were they going to jail but the house that served as the headquarters of their criminal operation was gone too.

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How could that not be a good idea?

Known as civil forfeiture, these seizures have been taking place at a dizzying rate across the country. Eight provinces now have programs in place, but none has been as aggressive as British Columbia, which has seized a stunning $41-million since its operation got up and running in 2006. As a months-long investigation by The Globe and Mail has shown, B.C.’s activity and output has even outpaced Ontario, which had a three-year head start. B.C. has hauled in $2-million more than its eastern counterpart.

Of course, that in itself isn’t necessarily bad. But The Globe series has raised some troubling questions about the almost rogue nature of the civil forfeiture program and an offshoot known as administrative forfeiture. As a result, legal minds as respected as former B.C. attorney general Wally Oppal have concluded that it’s probably time to review the program to see if, in fact, it is meeting all the tests of fairness and transparency that it should.

The Globe probe has certainly raised questions of due process, to which people accused of a crime are entitled. For instance, under the administrative review program, the B.C. government can seize property and assets worth less than $75,000 if authorities suspect it is the product of an unlawful activity. Those authorities do not require criminal charges or a conviction.

Those who want to appeal such a seizure have to go to court. Often the value of the property seized is less than potential legal costs someone would incur trying to get the assets back. Consequently, people have little choice but to say forget it and walk away. In one case revealed by The Globe, money was taken from a man’s car because police believed those inside were selling drugs and the cash was the result of that activity. But charges were never laid. Because of the byzantine nature of the forfeiture notification process, the car’s owner never did get his money back.

In another case, an innocent man who had his $9,200 coin collection taken from him by police had to fight the government to get it back. He finally did.

The Globe investigation revealed that those working in the B.C. civil forfeiture office have targets, ones that have been rising. Assets being seized started jumping in 2011-12, when the total was more than double what it was the previous year. The program now provides government with a nice, tidy little revenue stream. Revenue streams are something governments become addicted to and are always on the hunt to increase.

The question today isn’t whether we should be going after the glitzy homes and Maseratis of clueless criminals – that’s what the program was intended to do. Of course we should. The question is, has the government cast the civil forfeiture net too wide and scooped up innocent people in the process?

Is the definition of “unlawful activity” now so broad and vague that people accused of minor offences that would have been settled under statutes such as the Motor Vehicle Act or Employment Standards Act once upon a time, face the prospect of losing their homes?

At the end of the day, is that in the public interest? Is it fair to lump people who make minor mistakes in their life in with organized gangsters who make a life out of ill-gotten gains? Personally, I don’t think so.

B.C. Ombudsman Kim Carter this week issued a statement in light of The Globe series, one in which she urged those who may feel they’ve been unfairly treated by the administrative forfeiture process in particular to bring a complaint to her office.

With Justice Minister Suzanne Anton standing firmly behind the forfeiture program, it may take a broader investigation by the Ombudsman or a court ruling to evaluate its full impact and decide whether it’s meeting all tests of fairness and decency. There would seem to be enough evidence already that it is not.

Follow me on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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