Lately the newspapers in Vancouver have read something like this: “Rich kids engage in foolish and dangerous street racing in luxury cars. No criminal charges could be approved. Government seizes luxury cars as retribution for foolish and dangerous street racing. Cars will be subject to forfeiture proceedings. Justice prevails!”
Nobody cares about entitled rich kids and their Lamborghinis, Maseratis, and Porsches! So seize their cars! Make them learn a lesson!
Yeah! I agree! I don’t sympathize with those rich kids. One of their cars could pay for my legal education. Twice!
It appears the government has its poster child for the Pro Civil Forfeiture campaign.
This story could not have come at a better time for the cash-strapped government.
Uh-oh. This is bad. Why?
Because the term “unlawful activity” is incredibly broad; it is not restricted only to behaviour we consider criminal. The wide net that is cast by “unlawful activity” puts almost everyone that owns anything at risk in our highly regulated society.
Unlawful activity is defined as any act that is an offence under any act of Canada or B.C. This includes the Motor Vehicle Act.
Think about it this way. You work hard. Perhaps you have a family. Every morning you’re up at 6 a.m. to start the day and you’re at work by 8 a.m. You work until 5 or 6 p.m., rush home to get dinner on the go or other such chores and nonsense.
You’re going from A to B. You’re stressed, you’re rushed, and you’re late. So you go a little faster. No big deal. Just 20 kilometres per hour over the speed limit. Oh wait, you’re really late. Little Tony is waiting for you at the field after soccer practice and it’s raining. So you go a little faster.
Then out of nowhere, sirens! Lights! You’re pulled over. It turns out, you were going 105 km/h in a 60 km/h zone. Bad judgement, but not unusual for that stretch of road where everyone speeds. (That’s why the speed trap was set up there). Doesn’t matter—you were going 40 m/h over the speed limit. The police impound your car and issue you a ticket.
Unfortunately, you drive something nicer than my ’97 Toyota Corolla and the government is a little hungry for a bit of extra cash. Your file is referred to the Civil Forfeiture Office. Your car happens to be an instrument of unlawful activity. Consider it seized and forfeited.
Or how about another common scenario these days. You’re out at dinner with friends. You have one glass of wine because you remember that Rich Coleman said you could. Driving home three hours later you’re pulled over and given a roadside breath demand.
You blow. You fail. You’re shocked. You blow again. You fail again. (By the way, these roadside breath test machines are often operated incorrectly or are faulty. This also doesn’t matter.) Your car is immediately impounded; you’re served with a driving prohibition on the spot. Your car also happens to be an instrument of unlawful activity and is at risk of forfeiture.
Or even better, you’re a property owner. Nothing grand, but it’s an investment property. You take in renters to help with the mortgage. Next thing you know the house is raided and a marijuana grow operation is found. The government does not have enough to convict your renters or you. Fortunately for the government, they don’t need to have a conviction to forfeit your property. It so happens that a house and land is worth something in the Vancouver area, so they refer the file to the Civil Forfeiture Office.
By following the money trail, the government can show that you paid down your mortgage on the house using proceeds from a grow operation. Turns out the equity you built up in your house while renting is considered proceeds of unlawful activity and at risk of forfeiture to the government. There goes your nest egg.
So yes, the fancy cars of rich kids make a great face for this particular government strategy. But the true face of this issue is you.
There are more average people like you and me having their things taken by the government than there are entitled rich kids having their fancy cars seized. Then it stops being easy to point the finger and say, “You deserve it, you’re a criminal.”
Reasonable Doubt appears on Straight.com on Fridays. The column’s writers, Laurel Dietz and Nancy Seto, are criminal defence lawyers at Cobb St. Pierre Lewis. You can send your questions for the column to them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A word of caution: Don’t take this column as personal legal advice, because it’s not. It is intended for general information and entertainment purposes only.