Skip to main content

Inspector Brad Desmarais, left, and Jim Chu, Vancouver Police Chief Constable, discuss B.C.'s civil forfeiture program including one of the most valuable properties ever forfeited in the Lower Mainland during a press conference at City Hall in Vancouver, January 11, 2011.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Bill Pundick is proud of his currency collection. The pensioner has been acquiring rare coins and bills since the mid-1950s.

The collection, worth $9,251, was seized as part of an action against a grow-op, though Mr. Pundick was never charged with a crime and did not own the land the B.C. Civil Forfeiture Office confiscated. It took 18 months, and a ruling from the B.C. Supreme Court, before he got his collection back.

"They took a lot of loot off me, eh? I was glad to get it back. I was wondering if it was going to happen," Mr. Pundick said in an interview.

Mr. Pundick's case highlights the growing controversy around the practice of civil forfeiture, a process governments in Canada are increasingly turning to in an effort to recover the proceeds of alleged crimes. But as these offices grow around the country, critics are claiming due process is getting short shrift.

B.C.'s Civil Forfeiture Office was created in 2006 to fight organized crime, but a months-long Globe and Mail investigation has found it now has a wider reach and is facing questions about fairness, public interest and transparency.

British Columbia has been among the most aggressive of the provinces in pursuing property and cash in this way. Although it launched three years after Ontario, B.C. has hauled in $2-million more: $41-million to Ontario's $39-million.

Unlike Ontario, British Columbia issues its office budget targets, which have gone up over the past two years. And B.C. was the first province to introduce a process known as administrative forfeiture, which makes it quicker and easier to seize property worth less than $75,000. Alberta and Manitoba have since introduced similar programs.

Modern civil-forfeiture laws evolved in the United States in the 1970s and were first aimed at denying drug lords the proceeds of their crimes. Ontario was the first in Canada to enact such a law, in 2003.

Today, eight provinces have civil-forfeiture offices. Yukon considered civil-forfeiture legislation but decided against it in 2010 after a public outcry from people who said it would infringe on their rights.

The Globe spoke with defendants and lawyers and combed through court files to learn that the office often proceeds against people who police decided not to charge criminally. One case involves a man who is in danger of losing his house after an unlawful search. Another involves landlords who are threatened with losing their properties after unwittingly renting to a tenant who grew marijuana.

Wally Oppal, a former judge and once B.C.'s attorney-general, has said he would support a review of the province's legislation and the opposition has said it plans to raise the issue in the coming session of the legislature.

Mr. Pundick's money collection was seized in February, 2012, in the southeastern B.C. community of Appledale. It was found on a property on which marijuana plants had also been discovered. Mr. Pundick did not own the property, nor live in the main house, which was also seized. He lived in a separate cabin.

Court documents show the office argued the collection was the product of unlawful activity, and that approximately 150 grams of marijuana were also found inside the cabin.

Mr. Pundick, 72, was arrested after the police bust, but never charged.

He said he was living in the cabin, having worked out an agreement to provide labour in lieu of rent. The money, he argued, was clearly part of a lawful collection and pointed to catalogues he'd kept to evaluate the value of his coins and bills.

"I was so frustrated that I was just ready to give up," he said.

But he fought on, and in June, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Jacqueline Dorgan ruled in Mr. Pundick's favour, though the case against the homeowner is ongoing.

"What Mr. Pundick says is that he cashes his pension cheques, keeps the cash in his cabin and collects coins and bills. What the police found in Mr. Pundick's cabin is consistent with that version," she said in her ruling.

The judge said this was "not a case where wads of tens or twenties or fifties are rolled up and bound by elastic bands."

The judge said part of Mr. Pundick's work involved watering plants. But even if one was to allege that he watered marijuana plants, the connection between that activity and the cash would require "significant speculation."

"In my view, the evidence does not get the director [of civil forfeiture] to the threshold of meeting the test of whether there is a fair question to be tried, that the $9,251 is an instrument of crime or acquired as a result of illegal activities," she said.

Mr. Pundick's collection was returned to him in September.

"It took them about an hour to count it all out in front of me," he said.

Mr. Pundick's lawyer in the case is Blair Suffredine, a former member of the B.C. Liberal government.

Mr. Suffredine said recently the office's conduct in the few civil-forfeiture cases he's handled amounts to "bullying." He said the office tries to stretch out a case and make it so expensive the defendant has to settle.

B.C. Justice Minister Suzanne Anton has said she supports the program, noting it meets the public interest. The minister said many millions of dollars have been handed out to community associations and police as a result of the office's work.

Premier Christy Clark earlier this week said she's proud of the work the office has done.

The constitutionality of the B.C. law is currently being challenged by the Hells Angels, who have hired prominent B.C. constitutional lawyer Joe Arvay.

"If it takes the Hells Angels to demonstrate that the government has acted unconstitutionally, well then good for the Hells Angels," he said. "There have been a number of cases … where you look at what the director has done and you say, 'Really?' "