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Decision forces B.C. Civil Forfeiture Office to release names of employees

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

B.C.'s Civil Forfeiture Office has been handed another defeat with a ruling that says it cannot keep its list of employees secret.

The office, which seizes property it deems to have been used for unlawful activity, was the subject of a Globe and Mail investigation earlier this year. It has been besieged by questions of fairness and transparency, and recently abandoned two of its most high-profile cases after the B.C. Court of Appeal ruled against it in a case involving Charter violations.

This week, the Information and Privacy Commissioner delivered a ruling on a complaint filed with the commission in 2012, after the Civil Forfeiture Office and the Ministry of Justice refused to release the names of its employees to a paralegal who made a freedom-of-information request.

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Phil Tawtel, director of the Civil Forfeiture Office, argued that his agency deals with dangerous people and workers could be in harm's way if their identities were disclosed, and some might quit.

Adjudicator Elizabeth Barker ruled that the office and the ministry failed to prove releasing the list would jeopardize employees.

"The ministry must establish that there is a clear and direct connection between the disclosure of the information in question and the harm that is alleged. Although there is no need to establish certainty of harm, it is not sufficient to rely on speculation," Ms. Barker wrote.

She added: "I am not satisfied that disclosure of any of the names on the personnel list could reasonably be expected to threaten the safety or mental or physical health of the individuals identified."

A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said the Civil Forfeiture Office is reviewing the decision, and did not rule out an appeal.

Critics of the office say the ruling is overdue, that the security concerns were vague and hypothetical, and that jurisdictions such as Ontario disclose the names of their civil-forfeiture employees from the director down to summer students.

Jeremy Maddock, who filed the complaint, said he was pleased with the decision. Mr. Maddock, whose father is a lawyer who has worked on civil forfeiture cases, sought the list – which he believed should have been publicly available – because he wanted to find out who the office's director was. He made the complaint after he received a document with the names redacted.

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"It's a step in the right direction," he said of the decision on Thursday.

Mr. Maddock must receive the personnel list by early September. He said it will show the six employees who were at the agency in 2012, but the ruling means that anyone who wants to know who works there now can put in a request and get the information.

Micheal Vonn, policy director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, praised the ruling.

"It certainly unpacks what we need to understand about vague or hypothetical safety concerns, and what constitutes evidence for the purposes of withholding information from the public," she said in an interview.

Ms. Barker was not swayed by the four examples of threats the director gave as reasons employees could be in danger. One, she said, involved a man who said he would show up at the office and protest over his case. She said she was not given details for two others. An instance in which an employee was told to "watch out" could be seen as threatening, she said.

In April, the office abandoned the case of David Lloydsmith. A judge had ruled a warrantless police search of Mr. Lloydsmith's home that turned up marijuana plants violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Charges were never laid, but the agency pursued his modest residence for years.

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Weeks later, the agency also gave up its case against Robert Murray, who said a February, 2012, police search of his property that yielded 72 marijuana plants violated his Charter rights because it was conducted without a warrant. He, too, was not charged.

Since civil forfeiture legislation came into effect in 2006, the province has confiscated millions of dollars in so-called ill-gotten property (click for feature story). Here are some highlights since the program emerged

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