Changes to Sask. property seizure laws could violate charter rights: lawyer

Recent changes to Saskatchewan's civil forfeiture legislation could encourage policing for profit while eroding Canadian's charter rights, according to Regina-based lawyer Linh Pham.

Act includes provisions that would protect people from falling into civil forfeiture disputes, ministry says

Civil forfeiture law changes brought in by the government last month raise concerns, says a Regina lawyer. (CBC)

A defence lawyer in Regina says he's concerned changes to Saskatchewan's civil forfeiture laws could be a violation of charter rights — and possibly even encourage police to seize property as a revenue-generator.

At the end of April, the government passed legislation that broadened the scope of the existing laws under which it can seize property.

The province said the expansion of the Seizure of Criminal Property Act allows it to seize property in cases involving:

  • Property that was previously subject to a community safety order under The Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act.
  • Vehicles owned by people with a history of impaired driving suspensions.
  • Gang or terrorist activity involving prohibited and restricted firearms.
  • Matters involving sexual offences, including sexual offences with child victims.

Linh Pham, a lawyer with Merchant Law Group, said he has had many clients who deal with civil forfeiture applications.

Pham says those changes are concerning.

"[Policing for profit] is a strong term, but you're inducing the police to seize people's assets so that it's profitable for them, so they can use that money for their own needs," Pham said. "I just don't think that's appropriate."

In a news release last month announcing the changes, the province said forfeited property is "used to fund victims' programming, policing initiatives, and other programs that promote community safety."

Pham also called the changes an erosion of Canadians' rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which says citizens are innocent until proven guilty.

The changes to the property seizure act create a reverse onus, Pham said, in the sense that people who have their property seized by the government now need to prove their innocence in a court.

"You've got to consider the circumstance where perhaps these people didn't even know their property was involved in unlawful activity," he said.

For example, he said, landlords whose tenants grow more pot than they're legally allowed without the landlord's knowledge could have their property seized before anyone is even convicted of a crime. They would then be forced to appear before the courts to prove their innocence.

Additionally, for disadvantaged citizens, he said the changes could create even more financial problems, as Legal Aid is not available to people in civil forfeiture disputes.

Corrections and Policing Minister Christine Tell said the act includes provisions that would protect people from falling into civil forfeiture disputes with law enforcement agencies.

A statement from the ministry said judges have the final say on decisions around whether or not property can be seized. Property owners have the right to dispute the decision, and protections are in place for third parties "with lawful, innocent interest" in the property.

Pham said those protections don't go far enough.

"At the end of the day you have inexperienced individuals, with no involvement, possibly, prior with the criminal justice system having to appear in front of court to essentially fight for their property," he said.

"If they have to involve a lawyer, now, they're paying additional unnecessary costs. It's contrary to access to justice."

With files from Adam Hunter