Judge jokes case 'may never, ever end' as Hells Angels civil forfeiture trial begins

A trial that’s been more than a decade in the making got underway in fits and starts Monday, as lawyers for the B.C. government attempted to make their case for forfeiture of three Hells Angels clubhouses.

B.C. government seeks forfeiture of 3 gang clubhouses, arguing they're tools of criminal activity

Lawyers for the Hells Angels intend to argue that portions of B.C.'s civil forfeiture law are unconstitutional. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

A trial that's been more than a decade in the making got underway in fits and starts Monday, as lawyers for the B.C. government attempted to make their case for forfeiture of three Hells Angels clubhouses.

In his first remarks of the day, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Barry Davies joked that the case "may never, ever end," after hearing early indications from defence lawyers that they planned to object early on to evidence from the Director of Civil Forfeiture.

Lawyer Brent Olthuis gave a preview of the government's case Monday morning.

"This is a case fundamentally about things, and under the Civil Forfeiture Act, the likely use to which those things are going to be put in the future," Olthuis told the court.

He said he isn't trying to prove that every member of the Hells Angels is a criminal. Rather, the essence of the government's case is that the clubhouses are "fundamental tools" for the gang's illegal activities, Olthuis said.

Police seized the Kelowna clubhouse in 2012.

At the centre of the trial are the clubhouses belonging to the Nanaimo, Kelowna and East End chapters of the Hells Angels, which the province has seized under the Civil Forfeiture Act.

The case has the potential to decide the future of civil forfeiture in this province, as lawyers for the motorcycle gang are expected to argue that portions of the law are unconstitutional.

B.C. law allows the province to seize property from suspected criminals without obtaining a conviction or charges. Because the proceedings are carried out in civil court, the government only has to prove that someone is more likely than not to be guilty of a crime — unlike criminal proceedings, where guilt must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Objections from defence

Objections from the defence began with the testimony of the first witness, an undercover RCMP officer.

The Mountie took the proceedings all the way to Panama City, where he'd posed as a gang boss to make a drug deal with Kelowna Hells Angel David Giles in 2012.

The officer, whose identity is protected by a publication ban, had barely begun describing that encounter when defence lawyer Joseph Arvay made his first objection of the day, arguing the story "has nothing to do with the clubhouse."

Olthuis said the undercover officer's testimony about his conversations with Giles, as well as recordings taken during those meetings, will shed light on the criminal activities of the Hells Angels.

Davies allowed the officer to continue, explaining he would hear the testimony before deciding if it's germane to the case, but the exchange set the tone for an afternoon of back-and-forth arguments on the relevance and admissibility of government evidence.

In between objections, the undercover officer recalled how Giles showed off his tattoos, including the trademarked "Death's Head" logo for the motorcycle gang, and talked about his previous experiences smuggling large amounts of cocaine from South America.

'Protecting a brand'

Earlier in the day, Olthuis told the court that a central issue of the trial will be the Hells Angels' brand and the cachet it carries. He said the gang is "cultivating and protecting a brand that is associated with violence and intimidation."

Olthuis argued the clubhouses serve three major purposes for the gang: as safe houses, hubs for intelligence and "planted flags" that mark the Hells Angels' presence in the area.

The Hells Angels clubhouse in Nanaimo, B.C., was seized in 2007. ((CBC))

To prove its case, the government plans to draw on the evidence of two undercover police officers, investigators from Ontario and B.C., police informant Michael Plante and ex-Hells Angel Dave Atwell, along with documents seized from the clubhouses and photographs taken inside.

The case officially began in 2007, when the province launched its bid for forfeiture of the Nanaimo clubhouse. The East Vancouver and Kelowna clubhouses were seized in 2012.

The trial continues Tuesday and is scheduled to last five weeks.

About the Author

Bethany Lindsay

Journalist

Bethany Lindsay has more than a decade of experience in B.C. journalism, with a focus on the courts, health and social justice issues. She has also reported on human rights and crimes against humanity in Cambodia. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at bethany.lindsay@cbc.ca or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.