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Canada: Do Provinces Have A Right To Ill-gotten Gains?

Jim Finnel

Fallen Cannabis Warrior & Ex News Moderator
Ontario has reaped millions under a controversial forfeiture law that is about to be tested in the Supreme Court

When Toronto police officers pulled over Robin Chatterjee's car on March 27, 2003, they detected the reek of fresh marijuana - but couldn't find a trace of it.

Aside from $29,020 in cash, an exhaust fan and a light ballast, there was a dearth of even circumstantial evidence to link Mr. Chatterjee to a marijuana grow operation. The Carleton University student was freed without charges.

But that was not the end of Mr. Chatterjee's troubles. Provincial prosecutors moved in swiftly and seized the cash and the contents of his car under a controversial forfeiture law that will be tested in the Supreme Court of Canada next week.

Because Mr. Chatterjee could not explain the source of the money, and the equipment was the type frequently used in grow-ops, the law allowed them to be deemed to be connected to crime.

The stakes in the case are enormous: Future forfeitures are expected to bring in tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.

James Diamond, a lawyer for Mr. Chatterjee, said that his client's case is a perfect vehicle "to expose the shortcomings in the legislation. There were absolutely no drugs whatsoever found anywhere. The file was closed, and that was the end of the investigation."

Yet it is not the Draconian elements of the law that will be under challenge. Instead, the case will focus on whether the provinces have any right to seize the proceeds of unlawful conduct.

Mr. Diamond alleges that Ontario's Civil Remedies Act is criminal legislation that has been cunningly disguised to look as if it pertains to property and civil rights - valid areas of provincial jurisdiction.

"But the act cuts and pastes the entire Criminal Code - along with every other piece of federal legislation which may create offences, from the Customs Act to the Income Tax Act," Mr. Diamond said in an interview.

Under the Civil Remedies Act, an Ontario Superior Court judge must decide, on "a balance of probabilities," that an item was obtained by unlawful conduct.

( The provision is entirely distinct from federal criminal forfeiture laws, which are part of the criminal sentencing process, and widely conceded to be constitutional. )

Since 2002, Ontario has seized or launched forfeiture proceedings involving almost $16-million in property; 73 per cent of it was from drug-related cases.

B.C. has seized $4.5-million under its own provision since 2006. Alberta, Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Quebec have created forfeiture laws, but have delayed using them until the Supreme Court rules. The remaining provinces are almost sure to pass their own laws should the Supreme Court rule in their favour.

In a brief to the court, Ontario prosecutors Robin Basu and James McKeachie argue that deterring the creation of grow operations is linked directly to civil rights and property because grow-ops consume inordinate amounts of electricity and are potentially dangerous.

They also emphasized that the civil remedies law does not penalize or punish individuals, it merely seeks to retrieve property that did not rightfully belong to the owner.

B.C. prosecutors J. Gareth Morley and Bryant Mackey bolstered that point in their brief, adding: "If a child takes a cookie that she is not allowed to take and is required to return the cookie, she is not 'punished.'

"A bank robber who repays the stolen funds is, likewise, not punished," they added. "Assuming, as this Court must, that Mr. Chatterjee obtained the $29,020 from the illegal drug trade, it would abuse the English language to say that he has been 'punished' simply because he can no longer use his ill-gotten gains."

Mr. Diamond warned that, while the provinces have been careful to restrain their greed pending the court's ruling, the floodgates could quickly open to a court-sanctioned plundering of homes, property and bank accounts based on nothing more than suspicion.

He also warned that potentially innocent third parties are bound to fall prey to forfeitures, such as a pair of Barrie, Ont., landlords he represents whose buildings are being seized because some tenants sold crack cocaine there.

Mr. Diamond noted that the province originally marketed its forfeiture legislation as a method of defeating organized crime while helping victims obtain compensation.

In reality, he said, only about 15 per cent of the seizures have gone to victims, and a great many of those targeted for forfeiture had no organized crime connections.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association, a legal intervenor in the case, said that the act is so broadly worded that Ontario can plow the proceeds of forfeitures into police budgets.

In a moderate surprise, the federal government has thrown its support behind Ontario: "Forfeiture of the proceeds of crime is an important part of society's response to the various kinds of harm that profit-driven crime visits on individuals and communities at the local, national and international level," said a federal brief by prosecutor Cheryl Tobias.

News Hawk: User: 420 MAGAZINE ® - Medical Marijuana Publication & Social Networking
Source: Globe and Mail (Canada)
Copyright: 2008 The Globe and Mail Company
Contact: letters@globeandmail.ca
Website: globeandmail.com: Canada's National Newspaper
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