A B.C. woman says in a lawsuit that the province's Civil Forfeiture Office relentlessly attempted to seize her multimillion-dollar home, cost her more than $150,000 in legal fees, and made an inaccurate statement that caused her daughter to lose her job.
And, like others who have been aggressively targeted by the government agency that seizes property believed to be linked to crime, Mumtaz Ladha says evidence that went in her favour was played down and the agency acted solely out of financial interest.
Ms. Ladha, who was charged with human trafficking in 2011 and acquitted two years later, filed her lawsuit against the provincial government in B.C. Supreme Court on Monday. Her allegations have not been proven.
The forfeiture office began its attempt to seize her property before the outcome of her case had been determined, the lawsuit says, with the office pursuing Ms. Ladha's house just a few months after charges were laid and preventing her from using her home to raise the money for her defence on the charges.
The Globe and Mail has reported extensively on B.C.'s Civil Forfeiture Office over the past 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, even though it opened three years later. The Globe has reported that people have had to fight to keep their homes, vehicles, cash, and even a coin collection. Others have been unable to afford to argue their case.
The notice of civil claim – which also lists Ms. Ladha's husband and three children as plaintiffs – calls the office's conduct "egregious." The document says one of Ms. Ladha's daughters lost her job of four years after the office inaccurately suggested in a court filing the daughter was also charged.
The notice of civil claim accuses the office of taking "unreasonable legal positions." It says one of the rationales offered by the office was that Ms. Ladha violated the province's Employment Standards Act, meaning she engaged in unlawful activity and could therefore be pursued under the Civil Forfeiture Act.
The office took a similar position when it tried to seize a guide outfitter's permit when he was accused of violating the Wildlife Act. That case continues.
David Martin, Ms. Ladha's lawyer, called that position absurd. In an interview, he said the office was "tenacious" in its demand that the house be forfeited and has become "the equivalent of a police officer who has a quota on [writing] speeding tickets."
He said the office was established to target proceeds of crime, not people such as his client.
The office dropped its case after Ms. Ladha was acquitted, but declined to pick up her costs. Ms. Ladha said she sold the home last year to cover her legal fees and other expenses.
Ms. Ladha's family is claiming general, special, aggravated and punitive damages. The lawsuit says the family had legal fees of $392,630 for the criminal case and $159,331 for the civil forfeiture case. Mr. Martin said the family businesses in Tanzania suffered after Ms. Ladha's husband returned to B.C. to be by her side.
The lawsuit says the RCMP forwarded Ms. Ladha's file to the Civil Forfeiture Office after the Crown ruled out criminal forfeiture. It is the second lawsuit sparked by the office's conduct – the Hells Angels have launched a constitutional challenge of the Civil Forfeiture Act that has not yet proceeded to trial.
B.C.'s director of civil forfeiture declined to comment on the suit because it is before the courts. The director has repeatedly declined interview requests.
B.C. Justice Minister Suzanne Anton also said she would not discuss a pending case, although she expressed general support for the civil forfeiture program.
"I have confidence in the office," she said.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark earlier this month announced $3-million in civil forfeiture proceeds would be used to pay for a new domestic violence unit. Ms. Clark said the province would take money from "the bad guys" and give it to their victims.
Ms. Ladha was charged in May, 2011. The RCMP alleged she lured a young woman to Canada and forced her to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for no pay and little food.
She was found not guilty in November, 2013. B.C. Supreme Court Justice Lauri Ann Fenlon said Ms. Ladha was taken advantage of by the complainant. The judge said the complainant – an unidentified woman from Tanzania – wanted to remain in Canada and showed a "callous disregard" for truth in her testimony. The judge, at one point in the ruling, detailed 10 untrue claims the woman made.
Ms. Ladha, when asked why she filed the lawsuit, said, "I feel that there was really an injustice committed in this case."
She said her family was vilified – some people she knew did not believe she was innocent. A death threat was left at her door. She said her family is still scarred.
"It was hell on Earth," she said.
Ms. Ladha said she was shocked when police told her of the charges and had to ask the officer to explain what human trafficking meant.
Ms. Ladha is also suing the federal government over the RCMP's handling of the case – the Attorney-General of Canada is also named as a plaintiff. She alleges police ignored holes in the complainant's story, made public statements they knew were untrue, and pushed a slave narrative.
The federal Department of Justice referred comment to the B.C. RCMP. An RCMP spokesman said the force would not be commenting on the lawsuit at this time, out of respect for the judicial process. He said the force's response would be filed in a statement of defence.
The notice of civil claim suggests the RCMP was under pressure to find human trafficking cases. It says the United States said in 2009 a lack of convictions in this country could cause Canada to lose its status as a nation that fights human trafficking in an annual report from the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
A U.S. diplomatic cable from that time, published by the website WikiLeaks and provided to The Globe by Ms. Ladha's lawyer, quotes an RCMP officer as expressing a "strong frustration" with the Crown for not prosecuting more human trafficking cases. The cable says the RCMP was looking for a case "with a bow on it" to serve as a precedent. One of the two RCMP officers mentioned in the cable was an investigator in Ms. Ladha's case.
The 2013 Supreme Court judgment says the complainant testified she was tricked into coming to Canada. She said she was told she would be working as an esthetician at a hair salon, but was instead an unpaid servant.
Ms. Ladha did not testify, but in a written statement told the court the young woman first worked for the family in Tanzania. Ms. Ladha said she grew fond of her and offered to bring her on a 2008 trip to Canada.
Lawyers representing Ms. Ladha told the court the complainant was a guest at the family's West Vancouver home, not an employee. Defence counsel said the woman wanted to stay in Canada beyond her six-month visitor's visa and made up a story of abuse so she could claim refugee status.
The judge said the complainant was not a reliable witness.
With a report from Justine Hunter