The Hells Angels motorcycle club has launched a legal challenge against a B.C. law used by the province to seize three clubhouses allegedly used for criminal activities, arguing the law violates their Charter rights.
Rick Ciarniello, the president of the Vancouver chapter of the Angels, said it is not just members of his organization who should be troubled by the legislation.
"Governments everywhere are now routinely using these civil forfeiture laws as a substitute for the criminal process" said Ciarnello in a statement.
"Most people seem to just cave when faced with these forfeiture lawsuits. It is just too expensive and stressful to fight back when faced with the resources of the state.
"We aren’t going to do that and our fight will be for all British Columbians."
Charter of Rights 'violation'
Well-known civil liberties lawyer Joseph Arvay said the club launched the counterclaims specifically to challenge the government seizure of the Angels' clubhouses in East Vancouver and Kelowna in 2012 and the Nanaimo clubhouse in 2007.
In a statement, Arvay said the powers in the Civil Forfeiture Act, which was enacted in 2006, are beyond the powers of the province and contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“Civil forfeiture laws allow the government to do indirectly what it cannot do directly and that is to prove crimes without affording to those most directly affected all of the basic protections that the criminal law and process properly requires," said Arvay.
The Civil Forfeiture Act does not have the same burden of proof as a criminal proceeding, but in the 2012 seizure, the Crown alleged the clubhouses in Kelowna and Vancouver's East End were linked to extortion, assaults and even murder.
However, Arvay said police haven't been able to prove that the Angels is a criminal organization and that too often, civil forfeiture is being used as a substitute for judicial process.
None of the allegations have been proven in court.
Justice minister defends law
B.C.'s Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said she can't comment on the specifics of the Hells Angels case, but defended the civil forfeiture laws as "extremely successful."
"The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld the constitutionality of civil forfeiture laws in Canada," said Anton in a statement issued on Wednesday morning.
"The civil forfeiture process neither undermines nor circumvents Charter rights – both civil and criminal processes must meet Charter protections."
Anton said the Civil Forfeiture Office (CFO) must convince a B.C. Supreme Court judge that forfeiture should be ordered in any contested case.
"The CFO must prove that the property owner was complicit in, had knowledge of, or was wilfully blind to, the unlawful activity," she said.
"If a court subsequently determines that forfeiture is not in the interests of justice, then the court may limit or refuse to issue a forfeiture order."