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Civil Forfeiture

Have the police seized your property?

Have you received a Notice of Intent to Commence Forfeiture in the mail, or been served with a Notice of Civil Claim?

Time is of the essence. Call our office now for assistance. 

What is Civil Asset Forfeiture? 

Civil Forfeiture is a program operated by the BC Provincial Government under the authority of the Civil Forfeiture Act. The government, through the Director of Civil Forfeiture, files a lawsuit in BC Supreme Court to confiscate assets deemed to be “Proceeds of Unlawful Activity  and “Instruments of Unlawful Activity”.

“Proceeds” and “Instruments” refers to profit obtained through unlawful activity (such as cash, jewelry, stolen goods) and assets used to generate unlawful profit (such as vehicles used to sell drugs or buildings used to manufacture drugs). “Instruments” also includes assets that have been or are likely to be used in a manner that is likely to cause serious bodily harm. 

Civil forfeiture is separate and distinct from criminal court proceedings 

Criminal charges are a prosecution against a person. Civil forfeiture is a lawsuit against property. In criminal proceedings, you are facing the Crown in criminal court. In civil forfeiture proceedings, you are facing the Director of Civil Forfeiture in civil court. The Crown and the Director are separate and do not have anything to do with each other. 

A simple way to understand civil forfeiture is that the PROPERTY is on trial, not the person. Under the Civil Forfeiture Act, assets can be frozen, possessed by, and forfeited to the Director of Civil Forfeiture without the owner of the property being charged with a criminal offence. Assets can be forfeited even if the charges are stayed or the person is acquitted of a criminal offence. 

The Charge

Civil forfeiture is concerned with property. The purpose of the Civil Forfeiture Office is to commence proceedings against assets that has been acquired through unlawful acts (“Proceeds”) or used to commit unlawful acts (“Instruments”). 

Civil forfeiture proceedings typically arise out of drug trafficking, money laundering, fraud, and theft investigations. However, any unlawful activity that may generate unlawful profit can be subject to civil forfeiture proceedings. 

Civil forfeiture can also be used against property that is being used in a manner that is likely to cause serious bodily harm (ex. dangerous driving) 

Vehicles that that have been used to flee from police or contain an after-market compartment are also subject to forfeiture. 

The Process

1. Police Seizure 

The process begins when the police seize property during an investigation; typically, cash, jewellery, vehicles, and sometimes even real estate (land and buildings). The seized property must be seized in accordance with the Charter and the Criminal Code, or any other legislation authorizing seizure of property. 

The police have several options regarding what they can do with the seized property. One option available to the police is to forward the seized property to the Civil Forfeiture Office to be forfeited to the government if there is evidence the property was:

a) obtained illegally
b) used to generate profit through illegal means,
c) used in a manner likely to cause serious bodily harm, or
d) satisfies any of the other enumerated criteria in s. 19 – s. 19.05 of the Civil Forfeiture Act


2. Forfeiture Decision

After the property is forwarded by the police to the Civil Forfeiture Office, the Director of Civil Forfeiture reviews the file and can initiate proceedings to forfeit the property to the government. 

If you are the owner of property valued over $75,000 or the owner of real property (land), the Director of Civil Forfeiture will file a lawsuit against you in BC Supreme Court and serve you with a Notice of Civil Claim. You must then file a Response to Civil Claim with the court registry and fight for your property in a civil court proceeding. 

If the property is under $75,000 in value and not real property, you will be sent a Notice of Intent to Commence Forfeiture in the mail to your last known address. If you move frequently or do not have a permanent address, the Notice of Intent to Commence Forfeiture is also published weekly in the BC Gazette under “Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General”

If your property is less than $75,000 and not real property, you must respond to the Notice using the required dispute form within 60 days from the post-mark on the Notice or the date it was published in the Gazette. If you do not respond or if you fill out the form incorrectly, your property is automatically forfeited to the government without further notice on the deadline date. 

If you respond to the Notice of Intent, the Director of Civil Forfeiture must then file a lawsuit against you in BC Supreme Court or return your property. 


3. Court Proceedings

Civil Forfeiture proceedings occur in civil court, not criminal court. 

In civil court, the Director of Civil Forfeiture must prove on a balance of probabilities that the property was used or obtained unlawfully; this means the judge must be only 51% sure that your property is Proceeds or an Instrument of Unlawful Activity. This is different from criminal court, where charges must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Unlike criminal proceedings, in civil court you may be obligated to provide evidence in your own defence. This may include documents and witness testimony. Further, you do not have the right to not testify in your own defence. You may be compelled to give oral evidence in a civil court process called “Examination for Discovery that can then be used in the civil court proceedings. 

Recent Successes

R. vs. A.O. - Vancouver Provincial Court

Charge: Possession of a loaded restricted handgun, without a permit.
Issue: Whether the Crown could prove that our client did anything more than briefly touch the gun while he a passenger in a vehicle.
Result: Mr. Mines was able to persuade the trial judge that our client's actions were minimal and that his youthful age and lack of record allowed him to be granted  a conditional discharge. No conviction. No jail.

R. vs. S.S. - Nelson Provincial Court

Charges: Possession for the Purpose of Trafficking (MDMA, Ketamine, Cocaine).
Issue: Given the nature of the search and seizure, the rehabilitative steps we were able to guide our client through, and given the recent changes to the mandatory minimum jail sentence for this offence, whether our client was eligible for a non-custodial sentence.
Result: Notwithstanding the large amount of drugs involved (approximately 2 kgs), Mr. Johnson was able to persuade the court to impose a conditional sentence of two years, less one day. No jail.

R. vs. D.M. - Vancouver Provincial Court

Charges: Assault.
Issue: Given the provocation that preceded the incident, what  the appropriate sentence would be.
Result: Mr. Gauthier was able to persuade the court to sentence our client to a period of probation of 12 months. No jail.

R. vs. B.K. - New Westminster Provincial Court

Charge: Indecent Act.
Issue: Given the rehabilitative steps we were able to guide our client through, whether it was in the public interest to proceed with the prosecution.
Result: Mr. Mines was able to persuade Crown counsel to enter a stay of proceedings upon our client completing an extensive course of counselling. No criminal record.

R. vs. K.L. - Vancouver Provincial Court

Charges: Theft Over $5000 (from employer).
Issue: Given the rehabilitative steps we were able to guide our client through, whether she would be sentenced to jail.
Result: After steering our client through counselling and arranging her repayment of the misappropriated funds, Mr. Mines was able to persuade Crown counsel to not seek a. jail sentence. After hearing Mr. Mines' submissions on our client's behalf, the court granted a suspended sentence and placed our client on probation for 18 months. No jail.

R. vs. A.A. - North Vancouver Provincial Court

Charges: Sexual Assault; Uttering threats; assault, Breach of Release Order.
Issue: Whether there was a substantial likelihood of conviction.
Result: Mr. Mines was able to persuade Crown counsel that there was no realistic chance of conviction on the sex assault charge and Crown proceeded only on the assault charge to which our client pleaded guilty. After hearing Mr. Mines' submissions, the court granted our client a conditional discharge and Crown entered stays of proceeding on the remaining 3 counts. No jail, no criminal conviction.

R. vs. A.S. - Vancouver Provincial Court

Charge: Driving while prohibited.
Issue: Whether it was in the public interest to proceed with this charge which carries a mandatory one year driving prohibition upon conviction.
Result: Mr. Mines was able to provide Crown counsel with information that concluded our client was not at all responsible for the motor vehicle accident and persuaded Crown to proceed on the lesser offence of driving without aa valid license. Our client was sentenced to a fine and a 3 month driving prohibition.

R. vs. L.M. - Vancouver Provincial Court

Charges: Mischief Over $5000; Assault Police Officer.
Issue: Whether the sentence ought to emphasize punishment or rehabilitation in this matter where our client was alleged to have caused over $100,000 in damage to his building.
Result: Mr. Gauthier was able to provide Crown counsel with materials confirming the rehabilitative steps our client had taken for his mental health. The cRown stayed the assault police officer charge and, after hearing Mr. Gauthier's submissions, the Court granted our client a conditional discharge and placed him on probation. No jail.

R. vs. D.R. - Vancouver Provincial Court

Charge: Assault (domestic).
Issue: Whether it was in the public interest to proceed with the prosecution.
Result: Mr. Mines was able to persuade Crown counsel to enter a stay of proceedings on the assault charge. Our client entered into a 12 month Peace Bond. No criminal record.

R. vs. B.Z. - Port Coquitlam Provincial Court

Charge: Assault (domestic).
Issue: Given the rehabilitative steps we were able to direct our client through, whether it was in the public interest to proceed with this prosecution.
Result: Mr. Johnson was able to provide Crown counsel with information that allowed him to persuade Crown to enter a stay of proceedings. No criminal record.

R. vs. M.C. - Vancouver Provincial Court

Charges: Driving While Prohibited.
Issue: Whether it was in the public interest for Crown to proceed with the prosecution of this offence which carries a 12 month mandatory minimum driving prohibition.
Result: Mr. Johnson was able to persuade Crown counsel to proceed on the lesser offence of driving without a valid licence. Our client received a $500 fine and a 30 day driving prohibition.

R. vs. M.L. - Surrey Provincial Court

Charges: Sexual Interference.
Issue: Whether the Crown could prove that our client sexually interfered with his niece.
Result: After a 6 day trial, Mr. Johnson was able to persuade the trial judge that there was reasonable doubt as to the complainant's credibility and reliability. Not guilty. No jail. No criminal record.

The Defence

The Civil Forfeiture Act is a very powerful piece of legislation. It is important to know that fighting the Civil Forfeiture Office will involve a lot of time and effort on your part. 

It is also important to know that there are very strict timelines to file the various documents. It is crucial that you respond to correspondence from the Civil Forfeiture Office immediately. 

You are defending yourself in a lawsuit, and thus the rules of evidence are very different from a criminal prosecution. You will likely have to provide evidence in your defence. The Civil Forfeiture Office does not have to disclose their entire case to you upfront. This is notably different from the rules in criminal proceedings, where the Crown has the onus to prove the case against you and must provide you with disclosure of all the evidence they intend to rely on. 

Preventing proceedings against the seized assets 

If the police have seized your property but you have not received a Notice from the Civil Forfeiture Office, our team will negotiate with the police agency and/or the Civil Forfeiture Office to return your property before they initiate proceedings.  

The Property is not Proceeds and/or not an Instrument of Unlawful Activity 

To defend a civil forfeiture action, you must be able to provide evidence that the property was lawfully acquired. This often involves providing bank statements, pay stubs, and bills of sale. 

You may have to provide evidence that the property was not used to generate unlawful profit or was not used in a dangerous manner. This will involve producing evidence on a case-by-case basis, depending on the circumstances of the allegation. 

Forfeiture is not in the interests of justice 

Proportionality and fairness must govern civil forfeiture proceedings. 

If the Director of Civil Forfeiture files a lawsuit against you, you may be able to argue that the value of the forfeiture is disproportionate to the severity of the alleged offence. 

You may also argue that the forfeiture is unfair. This defence is often used when innocent parties are prejudiced by the forfeiture of the property. Commonly, this defence is used when the owner of the property is unaware that the property is being used unlawfully by someone else. 

Charter Breaches 

The police must obey the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter rules pertaining to the admissibility of evidence apply to civil forfeiture proceedings. “Bifurcation” is the term used in civil court to describe the process to argue that the evidence was gathered in breach of the Charter and should be excluded, akin to a criminal voire dire. Our team at Mines & Company has extensive experience making Charter challenges and will pursue every angle to exclude unlawfully gathered evidence. 

Settlement

Criminal proceedings are “all or nothing;” you are either guilty or not guilty. Civil Forfeiture is very different. 

Civil forfeiture is not “all or nothing.” Because it is a civil proceeding, it is possible to reach an out of court settlement to agree to only forfeit a percentage of the property’s value. This is achieved through negotiations with the Director of Civil Forfeiture and may involve participating in formal mediation. Settlement has the benefit of reducing the amount of time and money spent defending against a civil forfeiture action. 

Civil Asset Forfeiture is a complex and intimidating area of law. Don’t fight it alone.
Mines & Company has the knowledge and the experience to help you recover your seized property. 

Start with a free consultation.

If you are being investigated by police or if you’ve been charged with a criminal or driving offence, don’t face the problem alone. Being accused of an offence is stressful. The prospects of a criminal record or jail sentence can be daunting. Even if you think there is no defence, we may be able to help. To schedule a free initial consultation with one of our Vancouver lawyers, contact us now.