Suspect in Vancouver drug case lost properties, Porsche — even though charges were dropped
He's among trafficking suspects who lost more than $2M in property through civil forfeiture
Dennis Halstead says he's not a fentanyl trafficker — he's just a landlord who made the mistake of renting a townhouse to drug dealers. But he's spent the last four years defending himself against allegations of running a multi-million-dollar drug operation.
That ended earlier this year when all criminal charges against him were dismissed after a judge said Vancouver police officers had committed "serious breaches" of his charter rights during their investigation, nicknamed Project Trooper.
And yet, because his file was referred to B.C.'s Civil Forfeiture Office before he was charged, 39-year-old Halstead has lost three properties and a Porsche to the government.
"I felt like I was being robbed. I feel like civil forfeiture is unconstitutional," he told CBC this week.
"I think there needs to be some sort of charges and convictions in order for them to proceed to take away things that belong to people."
As CBC has reported, B.C. judges have identified a series of charter violations in four major recent investigations by the Vancouver Police Department's Drug Unit, including Project Trooper. Eight suspected drug traffickers have seen all charges against them either stayed or dismissed because their rights were breached.
But that wasn't the end of the story for suspects like Halstead.
In three of the four investigations — Project Trooper, Project Talon and Project Thorne — suspects had to forfeit their homes, cars and/or cash to the province even as the criminal cases against them failed. That includes property seized under warrants that would later be deemed invalid by the courts.
The province has taken in more than $2 million worth of property thanks to these cases.
Because Halstead's charges were dismissed before he went to trial, his claims of innocence will never be tested in court.
During the investigation, no drugs or guns were seized from his Coquitlam, B.C., home, though police did find $130,000 in cash, ammunition, radio frequency jammers and night vision goggles, according to the government's civil forfeiture claim, which describes him as a "high level drug trafficker."
The 'back-up plan'
Halstead's criminal defence lawyer, Neil Cobb, says he's troubled by the use of civil forfeiture in these major drug investigations.
"There is the disturbing, almost 'back-up plan' of using the province's Civil Forfeiture Office to ensure that the highly flawed police investigations will at least see something gained, even if all the charges are dismissed," Cobb wrote in an email.
A criminal conviction isn't necessary to seize a suspect's property through civil forfeiture, and the constitutionality of the practice is currently being tested in B.C. Supreme Court. People can lose their homes, their vehicles and even their cellphones without a single criminal charge filed against them.
The police say they're using every mechanism available to them to tackle a serious drug problem.
"These people that we're talking about that are getting acquitted are very dangerous people, and there's people dying, and so we use all the tools legally at our disposal to try and address that. Civil forfeiture is one of those, but I wouldn't say it's a fallback position," VPD Supt. Mike Porteous told CBC.
But critics dispute that.
The B.C. Civil Liberties Association has long objected to civil forfeiture in this province, and staff counsel Meghan McDermott told CBC she has particular concerns about its use in these investigations.
She said that when a judge excludes evidence because of rights violations by investigators, it's one of the few ways police can be held accountable for their actions. She believes that accountability is undermined if police can still use the civil process to go after the same suspects.
"It's very, very important to have courts make these kind of decisions ... and it's usually in pretty extreme cases," she said.
"If then the Civil Forfeiture Office is going to take properties, vehicles, even the money in the person's bank account, it's kind of an end run around the criminal process."
'I haven't done anything wrong'
Halstead said he was ready to fight the civil forfeiture claim against him before the criminal charges were filed.
"I just felt like I couldn't afford to fight both of them at the same time. So I ended up making a deal with Civil Forfeiture that I'm not happy with," he said.
He's lost a New Westminster townhouse he owned with his ex-wife, a single resident occupancy (SRO) hotel in the Downtown Eastside and a 2014 Porsche Cayenne Turbo, and he'll only get to keep a small portion of the proceeds when his home in Coquitlam sells.
He maintains it was his tenants in the New Westminster unit who were running drugs, not him.
There are no other criminal charges against Halstead listed in the online court registry. He says he's now considering taking legal action against the VPD, and says he hasn't been able to open a bank account since the charges were announced against him.
"I haven't done anything wrong," he said. "It's a bit disturbing for me."