Nova Scotia

N.S. taxpayers spent $543K to seize $158K from 'criminals'

Nova Scotia's Justice Department spent three times more money going after so-called criminals in civil court than they recovered in "ill gotten gains."

61 per cent of civil forfeiture cases dropped or dismissed

The civil forfeiture unit has a success rate of 40 per cent. (CBC)

Five years after Nova Scotia gave itself the power to seize the assets of people it considered criminals, the province has recovered a total of $158,865.10. 

But it has cost taxpayers triple that amount to go after the money.

The civil forfeiture unit's success rate is only 40 per cent; of the 38 cases it has initiated since 2011, it has abandoned 21 and lost two. That leaves 15 cases it has either won or reached an agreement with the person it had seized money from.

Roger Merrick, the man in charge of public safety investigations at the Justice Department, defended that record.

It's money and drugs off the streets

"Every $5,000 we take from a drug dealer is $5,000 that can't be turned into more money and it's drugs off the street," he said.

Roger Merrick (CBC)

The civil forfeiture unit in the Justice Department has been funded since 2008, a year after the Civil Forfeiture Act was adopted, but years before it actually came into force, in 2011. 

Police officer turned Conservative cabinet minister Murray Scott described it as an effective crime fighting tool, during debate when the act was just a bill, on Nov. 30, 1997.

"This legislation will allow us to hit criminals where it hurts the most — their wallets," he said in the provincial legislature.

Turns out, it's taxpayers who have suffered a greater financial hit.

Budget far exceeds goods seized

That's because the unit has never seized enough assets to cover its costs - something Merrick said it was never designed to do.

"We are not necessarily set up to be profit based," he said. "This program was set up to disrupt criminal activity
by taking funds away. Over that period of time we've taken away a large amount of money that we have reinvested. Yes, I think it has been successful to this point."

The unit's biggest win was its last case in September 2015 when John WA Turton agreed to forfeit $41,030 of the $51,030 Halifax Police officers seized from him during a traffic stop in May 2015. 

Most of the forfeitures have been smaller, ranging from $1,675 to $23,040.59. Most of it was cash but there have been three vehicles seized, a gold Rolex watch and a piece of property in Wentworth.

Every case involved the suspicion of drug trafficking or money laundering, except one.

Honda seized in murder case

In January 2013, police confiscated a Honda Civic at the heart of a second-degree murder trial.

The car belonged to Kyle Gowen who is currently in prison, serving a life sentence for killing Dillon Jewett, in the fall of 2010. Police had seized the car because it was used to drive Jewett to the gravel pit where Gowen shot and killed him.

The province considered it "an instrument of an unlawful act" and wanted it forfeited. It discontinued the action but the vehicle was eventually scrapped.

Lucky breaks by police

Some of the drug busts and subsequent cash seizures were the result of surveillance operations, but according to court documents, it appears police also got some lucky breaks.

For example, Matthew Charles Arcand  was at the wheel of his Buick Allure when officers pulled him over during a traffic stop in Stellarton on Jan. 7, 2013. The Moncton man happened to have something that caught the attention of one of the officers who "observed and seized a Sobey's bag containing $31,580.00 in cash." 

Police alleged Arcand was a drug dealer and the cash was part of that business or he was laundering it. Either way, when the case came before a judge in July 2013 he voluntarily agreed to give up $23,000 in order to keep $8,500 for himself.

Suspicious package 

Aaron MacCallum made a similar deal to keep half of the $7,525 police seized in a package addressed to the Truro man that officers picked up at a Purolator office in December 2012.

Although MacCallum denied he was a criminal and claimed the police seizure was illegal, he eventually agreed to give up half the money.

His lawyer Peter Lederman was convinced prosecutors didn't have a case, but his client was so afraid to appear before a judge he jumped at the chance not to.

'They're not sophisticated'

"It's not illegal to send money by courier," said Lederman. "It may not be the smartest thing in the world but it's not illegal and I suggested it to them that they should just give it back. Well they wouldn't do that."

The Truro lawyer was convinced others who agreed to forfeit money might have felt the same way as MacCallum.

"There are lots of people like him. They're not sophisticated. They're down at the Law Courts on Lower Water Street with a bunch of lawyers, sitting to go in front of a judge."

"So when they dangled that carrot in front of him he decided that the lesser of two evils was to take it and go home, which was what he did."

Others gave up money seized in more suspicious circumstances.

Drugs, money and a gun

Douglas Arthur Casey also made a deal to hang onto half of the $39,550 police confiscated from him in June 2012.

The money was seized from his home in Prospect, along with a loaded gun, a Taser and what police thought was cocaine.

Although he initially fought it as an "illegal search" of his property, a judge disagreed.

The only property seized by the unit, came as a result of RCMP drug squad raid at a property owned by Mark Alex Ferguson.

​These police images are from the only property seized and sold by the province at ​783 Valley Road, Wentworth. (CBC)

RCMP followed two other men to the property in Wentworth and found, according to court documents, "a dome-shaped garage constructed and used for the production of marijuana, containing an electrical power diversion system, high intensity lights, ventilation system and 721 marijuana plants." 

Crime prevention programs

A judge ordered the land forfeited to the province, which sold it for $9,264.85.

The money from the forfeitures has been given to crime prevention programs:

  • CJS African NS Youth Project in Preston $30,000
  • Crime Prevention Cure Violence $50,373
  • Atlantic Crime Prevention Symposium $10,000
  • Restorative Justice Conference $10,000

Although the Forfeiture Unit has recently lost its one and only employee because of a move out of province, Merrick is hoping to find a replacement to carry on the work started five years ago.

About the Author

Jean Laroche

Reporter

Jean Laroche has been a CBC reporter for 32 years. He's been covering Nova Scotia politics since 1995 and has been at Province House longer than any sitting member.