Chri$tma$ come$ early for BC Court$.
Barry Artiste, Now Public Contributor
Christmas came early for the British Columbia Government in the form of search and seizures of criminal assets worth millions of dollars from the proceeds of crime called the Civil Forfeiture Act. Obviously someone in the Courts is taking the lead here and spreading "Judicial Christmas Cheer" to criminals in the form of Justice.
A small provincial government office in Victoria has quietly seized millions of dollars in houses, guns, drugs, vehicles, jewelry and other assets allegedly bought with crime money or used for unlawful purposes.
The Civil Forfeiture Act, enacted 17 months ago, has proven a powerful weapon in the war against organized crime. So far, no one has gone to trial to try to reclaim any property seized by the two-person civil forfeiture unit.
The proceeds of crime legislation hit the spotlight earlier this month when heavily armed Mounties executed a court order to seize the Hells Angels clubhouse of the Nanaimo chapter, including three Harley-Davidson motorcycles and other contents.
A review of the civil forfeiture files in B.C. Supreme Court indicates a variety of cases, ranging from substantial bundles of cash seized by police during routine traffic stops to the seizure of a flashy Hummer from a man who twice bragged to police that he was making $100,000 a month as a cocaine dealer in the Victoria area.
Some seized homes were allegedly used for marijuana-growing operations. In a case in Mission, police observed an accused drug trafficker delivering Safeway deli trays and buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken to four dozen hungry pot "harvesters," who were arrested at the scene during a police raid.
One of the men making the fast-food delivery - alleged to be a high-level drug trafficker - had his $1.3-million Burnaby home later seized, along with more than $126,000 in furnishings selected by an interior designer - rugs, a $5,000 chaise longue, a Tuscan sofa, dining room suite, custom audio-video cabinet and $7,000 worth of beds.
The interior designer also helped design a new gazebo that featured a hot tub and masonry work.
Other seized homes were allegedly connected to large-scale money laundering and investment fraud.
Items seized have included a $73,800 diamond ring, a $13,500 Piaget watch and other jewelry, but there have also been such mundane items as cellphones and a BlackBerry allegedly used for drug trafficking.
Five thousand dollars in cash was seized from a man's car in Langley after it attracted the suspicion of police because it was parked on a dimly lit street outside an elementary school during the Christmas holidays.
Another case involved a Vancouver officer on routine patrol who ran the Alberta licence plate of a Nissan heading over the Cambie Street Bridge two years ago. The police computer showed the car was linked to a well-known Calgary gang.
The car was pulled over and police found $240,000 and two kilogram "bricks" of cocaine in the trunk.
Not surprisingly, no one claimed ownership of the money, which has been forfeited to the government.
About $5 million worth of seizures are before the courts, awaiting resolution (the actual property value is $10 million, but many of the homes have mortgages, which have to be paid out when the home is sold).
To date, more than $2 million in cash and assets obtained through illegal activities have been turned over to taxpayers since the act was introduced.
Solicitor-General John Les has described the Civil Forfeiture Act, enacted last year, as another tool in the government's crime-fighting arsenal.
The legislation, he said, allows the government to remove the profit motive from unlawful activity by going after the "bling" - the assets - of people with no obvious means of legitimate income or support.
Les pointed out that assets are seized and dealt with in the civil courts, which have a lower standard of proof than the criminal courts.
None of the seizure cases has gone to trial.
Those named as defendants in the lawsuits often file statements of defence to fight the initial seizure, but it appears many do not want to go through the civil examination for discovery process - where a government lawyer can question a drug trafficker about personal finances and legitimate sources of income.
The cases often result in the defendants quietly folding their tents and negotiating settlements, which usually allow a homeowner to sell a property at no less than the assessed value and compensate any relatives, such as spouses, for their interest in the property, plus paying out any legal and conveyancing fees.
So far, there has been no constitutional challenge of the legislation, although a legal challenge was launched in Ontario, which went to the Ontario Court of Appeal. The appeal court ruled last June to uphold the constitutionality of the province's similar Civil Remedies Act. The Criminal Lawyers' Association was granted intervenor status in that appeal, known as Chatterjee.
Two Hells Angels clubhouses in Ontario - in Oshawa and Thunder Bay - were seized before the recent seizure of the Nanaimo Hells Angels clubhouse, which may prove to be the test case of B.C.'s legislation.
The company that owns the property, Angel Acres Recreation, purchased it more than two decades ago and is expected to counter with a vigorous legal challenge of the seizure.
"The fact they can do it to us, they can do it to anyone they want," Vancouver Hells Angels member Rick Ciarniello said the day the Nanaimo clubhouse was seized.
The Hells Angels are known to have the funds to pay top Vancouver defence lawyers to fight what the bikers see as attacks on their organization. Police allege it is a criminal biker gang involved in drug trafficking, manufacturing drugs, operating marijuana-growing operations, murder, theft, possession of stolen merchandise, extortion, gun-running and money-laundering.
For years, Ciarniello has maintained some Hells Angels may be charged with criminal offences, but that doesn't make the motorcycle club a criminal organization.
There is, however, a Hells Angels case now before the courts that alleges several bikers are members of a criminal organization.
A successful prosecution of that case, and the threat of assets being seized, may cause some Hells Angels members to reconsider whether they want to continue belonging to the world's most notorious biker club.