Josef Schwarz was in a catch-22. The tenant living in his rental property was accused of being involved in drug activity, but provincial law stipulated he could not evict her unless she was convicted of a crime.
B.C.'s Civil Forfeiture Office, which seizes property connected with unlawful activity, went after the $300,000 house, claiming the woman's continued presence there would lead to more crime.
Mr. Schwarz's 16-month fight to keep the home ended this week, when the office abandoned the attempt without explanation. The case – described by a civil liberties expert as "outrageous" – was another black mark for the agency, which has been criticized for the aggressiveness of its operations. Some have called it a cash cow.
B.C.'s Civil Forfeiture Office has seized $6-million more in property than a similar agency in Ontario that was opened three years earlier. The B.C. office does not need criminal charges or a conviction to pursue a case. Over the past year, The Globe and Mail has reported the stories of people who have had to fight to keep homes, vehicles, cash and even a coin collection because of connections – some of them indirect – to crimes or allegations of crime. (You can read more here and here.)
Mr. Schwarz, a lawyer, bought the property in May, 2012. His tenant moved in that September.
The RCMP raided it in January, 2013, according to a notice of civil claim the forfeiture office filed in B.C. Supreme Court. Police searched it again in February and April of that year. The documents say officers found drugs each time, although amounts are listed only for the third raid – about 11 grams of marijuana, and 0.1 grams of crack cocaine. Police also found a digital scale and empty plastic baggies, the documents say. The court documents did not indicate why the tenant was not charged.
The office filed the bid to seize the house in October, 2013, saying Mr. Schwarz showed complete disregard for "drug activity and nuisance problems" there. It said the property was likely to be used for further unlawful acts and should be forfeited.
Mr. Schwarz said in court documents that the Residential Tenancy Branch advised him he could not evict his tenant, since no conviction was associated with the property and there was no damage, or negative impact on other tenants.
He said he encouraged the RCMP to pursue criminal charges, and in April, 2013, met with his tenant, who assured him there would be no further problems. The third raid happened four days later.
In the meantime, the civil forfeiture office has come under intense scrutiny.
A B.C. Supreme Court judge this week approved an application from the office to dismiss the proceedings against Mr. Schwarz. No reason was provided.
Mr. Schwarz, in a brief interview, expressed relief the proceedings were over, but also frustration.
"I'm done with it, it's been 16 months," he said.
Neither party was awarded costs. When asked about his legal fees, Mr. Schwarz would only say, "I had to retain counsel, let's put it that way. There's a cost to that."
Jay Solomon, Mr. Schwarz's lawyer, said the Civil Forfeiture Office made a pragmatic decision to drop the case. He said he had recently had discussions with the lawyer for the agency, but would not go into detail.
"I think they've heard the criticism. I think they've listened and they're taking a bit of a different approach to these cases," he said in an interview.
A B.C. Ministry of Justice spokesperson, in an e-mail, said the case was settled with the consent of all parties.
The forfeiture office has seized about $52-million in property since it opened in 2006. The Ontario office has seized $45.6-million in property since 2003.
Micheal Vonn, policy director with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, called the case outrageous.
"What exactly is the landlord supposed to do?" she asked.