When the first offer from B.C.’s Civil Forfeiture Office came in, suggesting Robert Murray could keep 20 per cent of the proceeds from the sale of his property if he gave the office the other 80 per cent, he believed the government agency was shaking him down. Mr. Murray’s property near the southeastern B.C. community of Nelson had been searched by RCMP in February, 2012. He says the search, which turned up dozens of marijuana plants, violated his Charter rights because police did not have a warrant. Mr. Murray maintains he only grew for personal use.
“I just didn’t think what was happening was right,” he recalls.
Criminal charges were never laid, but the Civil Forfeiture Office took on the case nonetheless. The office’s director last year told The Globe and Mail that 99 per cent of the people it targets settle in its favour. Mr. Murray, who has worked as a legal assistant, was in the small group prepared to go to trial. But, in May this year, the office suddenly abandoned the file. The property had already gone into foreclosure and was sold in early April. Mr. Murray said the sale price of $150,000 meant he lost between $50,000 and $75,000 on the deal.
Mr. Murray agreed to give The Globe and Mail access to dozens of e-mails, letters and other documents about the case because he believes the civil forfeiture process is cruel and unfair. He is one of a growing list of critics with concerns the agency created to fight organized crime has come to have too broad of a reach. The documents provided by Mr. Murray offer a rare behind-the-scenes look at the civil forfeiture process. They show the office’s hard-line negotiating tactics, with disagreements over settlement amounts and whether the case could proceed without a Charter hearing. The documents detail the office’s firm initial belief it would win the case and – after increased media attention and a key legal defeat – its sudden retreat.
Mr. Murray remembers the anxiety he felt upon reading the August, 2012, e-mail proposing he turn over 80 per cent of proceeds. By March of this year, a lawyer from the office was asking for 10 per cent and threatening to make Mr. Murray pay high legal costs if he refused.
Instead, within weeks of that ultimatum, the office threw in the towel.
Mr. Murray asks to meet in a coffee shop, then remembers a hockey game is on and requests a move across the street to a bar. There, he hands over a USB drive with the e-mails and documents from the case. His tone shifts throughout the conversation – at times he chuckles at what he says is the absurdity of it all, while at other points he is angered.
The first document on the drive is an e-mail thread between Mr. Murray and Johnny Van Camp, a lawyer representing the Civil Forfeiture Office. Mr. Murray wrote that he legitimately purchased the property with money from his parents’ estate. He also asked to see a copy of the police file.
Mr. Van Camp, in his reply, ignored the statement about the police file and made the offer for 80 per cent of proceeds, after payment of outstanding taxes, the mortgage and realtor fees.
When Mr. Murray replied by e-mail that he would pay that amount only if ordered by a judge, Mr. Van Camp’s initially cordial tone changed. He said he “reserve[d] the right to insist that further communications be made by written letter, if this correspondence becomes unnecessarily frequent or inappropriate.”
Jay Solomon, a lawyer who has worked on several civil forfeiture cases but was not involved in Mr. Murray’s, said an 80/20 or 75/25 split is generally the office’s opening offer, though he said the office can be willing to negotiate, depending on the perceived strength of its case.
In November, 2012, Mr. Van Camp reduced the offer and said the office would be prepared to accept 60 per cent of the proceeds. He said that was based on Mr. Murray’s equity level and was dependent on him accepting other conditions, including that the property be sold.
Mr. Murray, the following January, offered to pay the office $20,000. Mr. Van Camp, however, said the office wanted $50,000. The next month he reduced the desired amount to $40,000, though it is not clear why.
By April an agreement still had not been reached and Mr. Van Camp became more forceful.
“If we cannot come to an agreement in the manner proposed by April 15, 2013, my firm instructions are that the deal is off and to set down a hearing for an interim preservation order and immediate conduct of sale,” Mr. Van Camp wrote. He underlined the word “firm.”
Mr. Van Camp did not respond to an e-mail containing questions about the case and the civil forfeiture process in general. A government spokesman said the office could not comment on the individual case or negotiations.
By September, the Civil Forfeiture Office had lowered its request to $25,000. But, by that point, Mr. Murray was unwilling to accept any deal. His lawyer, Christopher Maddock, informed the office his client wanted to see what happened in another civil forfeiture case involving Charter issues, that of David Lloydsmith. Mr. Lloydsmith’s home had been searched by police without a warrant. The search had also turned up marijuana plants.
Dirk Ryneveld, another lawyer representing the Civil Forfeiture Office, wrote Mr. Maddock that it would be inappropriate to wait on another case and said discovery of Mr. Murray should begin in October. The case, however, would linger.
In February, B.C.’s highest court dismissed the office’s appeal against Mr. Lloydsmith.
Mr. Murray had assumed the ruling would bode well for his chances but, in late March, Mr. Ryneveld e-mailed to say the office wanted to settle the case for $10,000. If Mr. Murray did not agree, Mr. Ryneveld wrote, a bifurcation application – to split the proceedings in two and hear the argument about the alleged Charter violations first – could begin in June.
“This is a final offer, and should it not be accepted, I would be willing to discuss mutually available dates in June for your bifurcation argument,” the e-mail read. “If this offer is rejected, my instructions are to proceed on the basis that we would be seeking costs.”
Instead, the office dropped the case against Mr. Murray. It had already abandoned its pursuit of the property belonging to Mr. Lloydsmith.
Seized coin collection
Mr. Murray was not the only one to have something seized after the February, 2012, police search of his property. Bill Pundick, a pensioner, had been living in a separate cabin on Mr. Murray’s property. Mr. Pundick’s decades-old coin collection, valued at $9,251, would also be seized.
Blair Suffredine, Mr. Pundick’s lawyer and a former member of the B.C. Liberal government who has equated the office’s conduct at times to bullying, e-mailed Mr. Van Camp to say the money should never have been seized.
“I have evidence in the form of credit union receipts to show that my client cashed his pension cheque each month and received cash. He made a practice of checking each bill against his catalogues and keeping any that he felt might have greater value [than] on their face. … The funds you have are simply not proceeds of unlawful activity. They are his pension income,” Mr. Suffredine wrote in August, 2012.
But the money was not returned until after a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled it should not have been seized. The judge, in the June, 2013, ruling, said it was clear the money was lawfully obtained.
Micheal Vonn, policy director with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said it has long heard concerns similar to those laid out in the e-mails.
“We have always been concerned about people’s ability to effectively address these demands,” she said in an interview. “…This is a civil court proceeding that almost never gets to court. It’s all of this negotiation with the Civil Forfeiture Office. … What we’re seeing is many people capitulate without any form of really effective adjudication.”
Mr. Murray said he still gets angry when reads the documents, particularly the one with that initial 80/20 offer.
“They made it sound like they were doing me this great favour,” he said.