The Government of British Columbia has implemented new legislation to tighten the province’s civil forfeiture rules.
What is civil forfeiture?
Civil forfeiture is when a government appointed body – called the Civil Forfeiture Office (CFO) – seizes assets believed to be the proceeds or instruments of crime. These assets could be property, money, vehicles or equipment.
For example, if the CFO believes your car was purchased with money obtained from drug trafficking, the vehicle can be forfeited to the government. The same is true if the CFO alleges that your house was used to produce illegal drugs or organise criminal activity.
In March, the BC government proposed changes to the civil forfeiture laws. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said the amended Bill intended to target organised crime and fentanyl trafficking.
The new legislation came into force on May 16, 2019. There are three major changes to the previous laws.
Firstly, it is now up to the defendant to prove that the property is not an instrument or proceed of unlawful activity. This reverses the onus. Previously, the burden of proof was on the Crown to establish a link between the asset and criminal activity.
Secondly, the CFO is allowed to ask a judge to order that the accused’s assets are held – even before the CFO has formally sued them. The idea is that the accused cannot transfer money from their account before legal action begins.
Thirdly, the CFO can ask banks and financial institutions to hand over information about their client, before any assets are transferred abroad.
Is civil forfeiture constitutional?
The new rules have come under a lot of criticism. Not least, there are concerns that the law is actually unconstitutional, particularly in relation to the reverse onus law. It is unusual for the burden of proof to be placed on the defendant. To make matters worse, civil forfeiture defendants are ineligible for legal aid. This creates an unfair situation whereby the defendant must prove their innocence, yet may not be able to afford legal representation.
There are also worries about the potential for abuse regarding the search and seizure of assets. This is nothing new when it comes to civil forfeiture. There have been many cases in which the seizure of evidence has later found to be a violation of the defendant’s Charter Rights. However, the ability of the CFO to demand information from banks and financial institutions lowers the legal standard even further.
Vancouver civil forfeiture lawyers
This is an evolving area of the law. Now that the legislation has been implemented, there will likely be legal challenges on the basis that the new laws are unconstitutional. As specialist Vancouver criminal lawyers, we will stay up-to-date with any changes that you affect you as a defendant.
If your assets have been seized by the Civil Forfeiture Office, please contact us now for immediate legal advice.