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Innocent or guilty, BC’s civil forfeiture law wants you

Doug Eastwood takes a photograph of seized Hummer that was used to traffic narcotics as a seized helicopter that was taken from a suspected drug trafficker is seen in the background after a press conference in Richmond, British Columbia, Thursday, February 9, 2012. It was announced today that $5.5 million from crime proceeds has been granted by the BC government to support local crime prevention efforts. Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's Civil Forfeiture Office opened in 2006 with what sounded like the best of intentions: it would use new legislation to seize property alleged to have been used in unlawful activity. Best of all, at least from the authorities' standpoint, their targets didn't necessarily have to be convicted of a crime. That wrinkle in the law was meant to enable the Office to go after the shadowy world of organized crime. But somewhere along the way, that goal was forgotten. A law meant to target career criminals has ended up being used, and often, to target people who have committed no crime at all. Or people who committed mere minor infractions – slapping them enormous punishments wholly out proportion with their alleged crime.

Enter David Lloydsmith, a former electrician on partial disability who lives in the Fraser Valley. Back in 2007, he received a knock on the door from the RCMP. A Mountie told Mr. Lloydsmith he was responding to a 911 call. When Mr. Lloydsmith refused to allow him in, he was arrested and his home was searched. In the basement, the officer found marijuana plants. This was a "minor" offence in the eyes of the officer, and what's more the judge found that the search was unreasonable and hence illegal. Mr. Lloydsmith was not convicted of anything. No matter. The B.C. forfeiture office went to town, attempting to seize his modest home.

The case went all the way up to the province's top court before BC's Civil Forfeiture Office this week abruptly decided to back down. Hopefully, Mr. Lloydsmith can now move on with his life, but his ordeal is not an isolated incident. Troubling questions around civil forfeiture legislation and the mandate of the BC office remain. The basic problem is the law's incredibly low burden of proof. It enables the authorities to take away someone's property even if that person has never been convicted of a crime. Not surprisingly, this has paved the way for all kinds of abuse.

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And then there's the Office's mandate. Its actions should be motivated by justice. Instead, it appears to be partly fuelled by greed. It sets annual seizure targets and, perhaps unsurprisingly, routinely surpasses them. In the last fiscal year, it seized $9.5-million in property – three times its annual target.

The case against Mr. Lloydsmith has been dropped, but the constitutionality of the law remains under question. The Charter of Rights tends to frown on abuses of government power and perversions of justice. If BC's Civil Forfeiture Office can't reign itself in, the courts should.

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