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B.C.’s Civil Forfeiture Office loses appeal, will release employee names

An image from the website of B.C.'s Civil Forfeiture office.

British Columbia's Civil Forfeiture Office will disclose the names of its employees after its appeal of an Information and Privacy Commissioner decision was dismissed, bringing an apparent end to the long-running dispute.

A privacy commissioner adjudicator last July ruled the Civil Forfeiture Office – a government agency that has faced questions of fairness and transparency – could not withhold the names of its employees. The issue arose after a Freedom of Information request was filed in 2012.

B.C.'s Ministry of Justice challenged the adjudicator's decision to the province's Supreme Court. The ministry said the adjudicator applied too high a standard of proof and disregarded a government security official's affidavit concerning employee safety. The affidavit said civil-forfeiture employees are "confronted with the same level of risk in relation to their personal safety as prosecutors."

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The ministry's application was dismissed by a judge late last week.

Jeremy Maddock, the law student who filed the FOI request, said he was pleased with the court's decision.

"It's been a long process. It shouldn't have taken this long but I feel good that I was a part of hopefully bringing some accountability to that office," he said in an interview. "On the other hand, I don't have the names yet, so we'll see if they try to pull any more tricks."

The Globe and Mail has reported extensively on B.C.'s Civil Forfeiture Office for more than a year. The office does not need a conviction or charges to pursue a case and critics have called it a cash cow. B.C.'s office has seized millions of dollars more than a similar office in Ontario, despite opening three years later.

Mr. Maddock said the privacy commissioner's order applies to those who worked at the Civil Forfeiture Office at the time his FOI was filed, but "the precedent would say that they should release the names to any person who requests the full list now."

A ministry spokesman, in a statement, wrote it "will be releasing the names as requested in the original inquiry."

The spokesman added that the Civil Forfeiture Office "will be working with the ministry's security advisers to review and adjust any necessary security precautions in order to ensure the ongoing safety of these employees."

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A spokeswoman for the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for B.C. said the judge's decision and the adjudicator's ruling speak for themselves. She said the office would not be commenting further.

The privacy commissioner's decision, delivered by adjudicator Elizabeth Barker, said the ministry failed to prove releasing the list of civil-forfeiture employees would put them at risk. Ms. Barker said it was not sufficient to rely on speculation.

Carl Prophet, the ministry's strategic lead for corporate security and risk, had sworn an affidavit that said "in the organized crime community, successfully committing a criminal act against CFO employees and going to jail for such an act may be seen as a badge of honour."

Civil-forfeiture critics hailed the privacy commissioner's ruling when it was delivered, arguing the security concerns were vague and hypothetical and noting that jurisdictions such as Ontario disclose the names of their civil-forfeiture employees .

Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said Monday, "The presumption for the government has got to be one of openness, that has to be the starting place."

"Obviously everyone wants to make sure that public servants are able to work safely. But if there's no genuine, documented threat to their safety, then there's absolutely no reason why this kind of routine, general information about government employees should be hidden from the public," he said.

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B.C Justice Minister Suzanne Anton has vigorously defended the civil-forfeiture program, even as other jurisdictions have begun shying away from such practices. For example, the governor of New Mexico earlier this month signed a bill that would virtually end civil forfeiture in that state.

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