British Columbia’s justice minister has rejected calls for a review of her ministry’s Civil Forfeiture program, saying it is running just as her government intended.
Since the office opened for business in 2006, the scale of forfeitures has grown rapidly, and has swept up far more than the gangs involved in the billion-dollar drug trade that it was initially expected to target.
Following a months-long Globe and Mail investigation, questions about fairness, public interest and transparency of the program have been raised by critics including the opposition New Democratic Party and former Attorney General Wally Oppal.
But Attorney-General Suzanne Anton, in a written statement issued Wednesday, said she is satisfied there is no cause to take a second look at the program.
“I am confident in the work being done by the Civil Forfeiture Office (CFO), which is precisely what it was set out to do when it began in 2006 so there is no need for a review. I am also very proud of the success it continues to have in taking away the proceeds of crime and investing it back in communities throughout the province,” she said in the statement. “Through its work, we have been able to distribute approximately $11-million from successful forfeiture actions to crime prevention and victim service programs as well as to victims of fraud.”
When the office was established, it was billed as another tool in the fight against organized crime. Since that time, the program has seized $41-million worth of property, but some of those targeted have not been charged with any crime. The office does not need criminal charges, or convictions, to move on a property.
Phil Tawtel, director of the Civil Forfeiture Office, welcomed the minister’s endorsement. However he said in an interview that the program has evolved in response to court rulings, and some key rulings are expected this year that could prompt more dramatic changes.
“There are ongoing adjustments to the program that take place organically when decisions are handed down by the courts,” he said in an interview. “We expect some very important direction from the courts this year.”
In particular, in February the B.C. Court of Appeal is set to hear a dispute about how the office handled the case of David Lloydsmith, a Mission resident whose home is being seized under the program after police found marijuana plants in his basement. Mr. Lloydsmith was arrested, but released without charges. A lower court ruled that the search of his home was “unreasonable.” Mr. Tawtel said that hearing could lead to further adjustments. “We have asked for direction – not on whether he loses his house or not, but how the file should be handled, where the Charter issues come in.”