Sports car seizures 'a deep reversal of important rights'
Bethany Lindsay, ctvbc.ca
Published Thursday, September 8, 2011 4:19PM PDT
B.C.'s civil liberties watchdog is slamming the possible forfeiture of five high-end sports cars involved in a youth street race last week.
Thirteen young drivers, who are all under the age of 21, were caught racing at speeds of up to 200 kilometres per hour near the Massey Tunnel on Aug. 31.
Mounties aren't recommending any criminal charges, but the Civil Forfeiture Office will pursue the seizure of a handful of the cars.
Micheal Vonn, policy director for the BC Civil Liberties Association, says that response is wildly disproportionate to the offence, especially when none of the young drivers has been charged with a crime.
"This is just an end run around the criminal process," she told ctvbc.ca.
"There's a reason why we don't charge people $1 million for jaywalking. We expect a court to make a fair assessment of what is due in terms of violation or offence."
A baker's dozen of luxury cars -- including Ferraris, Maseratis, Lamborghinis, Mercedes, Aston Martins and Audis -- were seized in Surrey and White Rock in connection to the street race. The vehicles were returned to the young people Thursday after a seven-day impoundment.
Each of the drivers has been issued a $196 ticket for driving without reasonable consideration, but police say there just isn't enough evidence to recommend charges.
"With the criminal avenue closed to us, we decided to see if there was enough evidence to proceed civilly," RCMP Supt. Norm Gaumont said in a release Thursday.
Solicitor General Shirley Bond says that the civil forfeiture office has determined there is enough evidence to file civil claims concerning five of the vehicles.
"We expect people to behave responsibly on the highways," she told reporters.
"I think it's important to send a very strong message that this kind of behaviour is not going to be tolerated."
Bond says the government is trying to protect public safety through the forfeiture action, and promises that the cars' owners will have a fair shake in court.
BCCLA ‘caught off guard' by forfeitures
Vonn says this marks the latest in a series of troubling examples of forfeiture claims made by the B.C. government.
"We've seen a real pile-up here in scenarios in which we've been caught off guard," she said.
Earlier this week, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled that the government can go ahead with its lawsuit seeking to seize a former grow-op home on Vancouver Island, even though the house's owner was acquitted of all drug charges against him.
And in February, a judge approved the seizure of two East Vancouver properties worth almost $1 million, although the homes' owner was never charged and wasn't aware that his tenants were operating sophisticated grow-ops inside.
"Is a $1-million fine appropriate for failing to know what your tenants were doing?" Vonn asked
"This is a deep reversal of some very important rights of all citizens."
Von says the B.C. public was misinformed when the government brought in legislation allowing civil forfeitures. She says the understanding was that the law would allow the government to seize the proceeds of organized crime.
"When this law was brought in we were told ... this would be all about gangs," she said. "[These recent cases are] not what people think about at all when they think about the fruits of crime."
She points out that the criminal justice system does allow for seizures of property connected to crime -- as long as the accused person has been found guilty.
"We're not opposed to the idea of criminal forfeitures," Vonn said. "There's no civil right to maintain the fruits of crime."
But the civil justice system requires a different standard of proof entirely, and the criminal benchmark of "beyond a reasonable doubt" doesn't come into play. And unlike in criminal cases, people involved in civil lawsuits do not have the right to legal aid.
B.C.'s law on civil forfeiture has been tested in the Supreme Court of Canada, Vonn says, but that case only asked whether it's appropriate for the province to make seizures when criminal law is a federal matter.
But she says that if the BCCLA sees a good opportunity to test the law again based on what it sees as misuses of power, it will consider taking the province to court.
The B.C. government says that the profits made from civil forfeitures go towards supporting victims of crime.