Roberta Allwright has never been charged with a crime, which she says made it all the more perplexing when British Columbia's Civil Forfeiture Office seized her pickup truck this past summer.
A B.C. Supreme Court judge last week ordered the truck returned and scolded the government agency for its "zealous measures." Ms. Allwright says she was stunned to even be caught up in the civil-forfeiture process.
"Before it happened to me, I thought civil forfeiture was for drug dealers and gang members," she said in an interview.
B.C.'s Civil Forfeiture Office was created in 2006 to fight organized crime but a Globe and Mail investigation earlier this year showed the agency has come to have a far broader reach, with critics calling it a cash cow. Those critics have accused the government office of targeting people who cannot afford to fight back and called the penalties it pursues – tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars in property – wildly disproportionate.
The office does not need charges or a criminal conviction to pursue a case. In Ms. Allwright's case, the office did not even believe the 52-year-old Kelowna woman was driving the pickup when it was pulled over by police.
The civil-forfeiture judgment says Ms. Allwright and her partner, Clifford Robinson, were stopped by police on Canada Day, after the RCMP received a tip that the male driver of the vehicle was intoxicated.
Mr. Robinson failed a roadside alcohol test, while Ms. Allwright passed, the judgment says. The vehicle was impounded, but Mr. Robinson was not charged with impaired driving. Exactly why is not made clear.
When the couple went to retrieve the vehicle one month later, Ms. Allwright said they were told the matter had been referred to civil forfeiture.
Ms. Allwright purchased the 2006 Dodge pickup in September, 2013, for $16,000. She and her lawyer discussed whether it would be best to simply walk away, since the legal bills could dwarf the value of the property – a common concern in civil-forfeiture cases.
The case was also being heard in Victoria, where it was filed, meaning Ms. Allwright would have to pay for her counsel to fly there from Kelowna. She and her lawyer ultimately decided to see if they could get the case dismissed without proceeding to trial.
In his ruling, Justice Douglas Thompson called the Civil Forfeiture Office's case "frivolous" and said the truck was not an instrument of unlawful activity.
"Regrettably, this appears to be a case where the office … has taken zealous measures … with the unfortunate effect of depriving a citizen of lawful possession and use of her property, and putting that citizen to what I suspect is considerable expense and inconvenience to retrieve her property," the judge wrote.
The judge noted that Ms. Allwright had barred Mr. Robinson from driving her two other vehicles since the incident.
He said Mr. Robinson did have three convictions for impaired driving, and several more for driving without a valid licence, but called those offences "dated." The impaired-driving convictions were between 1992 and 2000.
Mr. Robinson was charged with driving with a suspended licence after the Canada Day incident. He was also charged with willfully resisting or obstructing a peace officer, after the Mountie said he and Ms. Allwright switched seats as they were being pulled over.
Ms. Allwright declined to comment on that allegation, given Mr. Robinson's ongoing criminal case.
She said she and Mr. Robinson met at church and have been together for two years. She said his previous driving record does not reflect who he is today.
"He's really turned his life around," she said.
Ms. Allwright said the case cost her thousands in legal fees – money she will try to recoup in court.
The vehicle was returned on Thursday. Ms. Allwright said the passenger door appears to have been damaged while the vehicle was out of her possession.
The office, through a government spokesman, declined to comment on the case.
The Civil Forfeiture Office has taken in $6-million this fiscal year, after collecting approximately $11.1-million in 2013-14. The office has taken in about approximately $49-million in property since it opened.