Saskatchewan

Sask. passes enhanced civil forfeiture law

The Saskatchewan government has passed legislation expanding the scope of what it can seize.

Critics say civil forfeiture laws infringe on rights

Saskatchewan authorities can seize property if they believe it was part of an unlawful activity. This can include homes and vehicles. (Google Images)

The Saskatchewan government has passed legislation expanding the scope of what it can seize.

The province said assets acquired as a proceed of crime or objects used to commit a crime can be seized.

The updated Seizure of Criminal Property Act allows the province to seize property it believes was part of an unlawful activity, such as a vehicle used to deal drugs or a property where a marijuana grow-operation was located.

The province said the expansion of the law 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.

"These changes are designed to help combat serious crimes that threaten the safety of our communities," Corrections and Policing Minister Christine Tell said in a news release.

The new law will go into effect next month.

"Forfeited property is used to fund victims' programming, policing initiatives, and other programs that promote community safety," Tell said.

NDP questions expanded law

NDP justice critic Nicole Sarauer said she has concerns about the province's expansion of civil forfeiture.

She said she has received "little assurance" from the minister that the changes were even necessary.

In its announcement, the Ministry of Corrections and Policing said, "the Government of Saskatchewan has passed legislation that will enhance the province's civil forfeiture program in order to take property and profits out of the hands of criminals."

Sarauer said the use of the word "criminals" is an issue because under the act, individuals do not need to be charged to have the civil forfeiture process started. 

"Individuals who are subject to these proceedings aren't necessarily convicted of a crime and they may never be convicted of a crime," she said.

"Calling them offenders is inappropriate, calling them criminals is absolutely wrong."

Sarauer said some people who are under community safety orders are not charged with a crime but could be subjected to a forfeiture proceeding.

She said members of the criminal defence bar were not consulted on the changes and should have been.

"The burden of proof on these is much lower than criminal proceedings. There's not legal aid representation for this."

She said some of the changes reverse the onus, making the owner responsible for proving they should not lose their asset. 

Tell said concerns are unfounded.

"There is no need for anybody to be concerned. There are protections and safeguards built into this act as has always been," Tell said.

Criticism of civil forfeiture laws

Derek From, a lawyer from the Canadian Constitution Foundation (CCF), said the Saskatchewan Government's expansion of this law is "problematic."

"These laws, including Saskatchewan laws, they basically overturn some of the great historic rights that we as Canadians hold," From said.

The province doesn't have to prove the property was part of criminal activity and does not require a conviction before seizing money or property.

The criminal process is separate from the civil forfeiture process. For example, an accused can be found not guilty or have their charges dropped but their civil forfeiture proceedings could still go ahead. 

"Civil forfeiture laws allow the government to take your property from you even if you haven't committed any crime or what the laws call unlawful acts," From said.

The police receive a portion of the profits from their own policing activity. From said that creates an incentive for them to go after someone's property.

"Now we are looking at policing for profit."

Money collected through seizures in Sask.

A portion of the money generated through forfeiture is given to police and non-profit groups through grants.

Saskatchewan's provincial auditor examines the financial statements of Criminal Property Forfeiture Fund annually.

The province received $1,014,268 in the 2017-18 fiscal year in forfeitures. This was down from the 2016-17 total of $1,349,732. The province paid $2.5 million in grants to police and non-profits in 2016-17. In 2017-18, the grant total was considerably less at $111,525.

According to the Ministry of Corrections and Policing there were 12 court ordered forfeitures and 109 administrative forfeiture notices totaling $1.5 million in 2016-2017. In 2017-2018, there were 19 court order forfeitures and 122 administrative forfeiture notices totaling $882,000.

Civil forfeiture cases have gone to the Supreme Court in Canada and the United States. In some cases, plaintiffs argued property seized was not proportionate to the crime they were accused of or convicted of committing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam Hunter

Journalist

Adam Hunter is the provincial affairs reporter at CBC Saskatchewan, based in Regina. He has been with CBC for more than 14 years. Follow him on Twitter @AHiddyCBC. Contact him: adam.hunter@cbc.ca

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