The Globe and Mail has, over the past week, highlighted concerns about B.C.'s civil forfeiture process, from fairness to public interest to transparency. The stories followed a months-long investigation and on Thursday the province's ombudsperson requested feedback from the public on certain types of seizures. The Globe spoke with B.C. Justice Minister Suzanne Anton after an unrelated event Friday. The minister reiterated her support for the office and offered a new rationale on why B.C. sets office budget targets – something Ontario does not.
Do you still have confidence in the system?
The civil forfeiture program is a very good program and it's designed to forfeit to government proceeds of unlawful activity. It's monitored by the courts, the courts approve either the settlements or the hearings that are held. And the proceeds that are forfeited to government are used in crime prevention programs.
Why does B.C. need budget targets for its program, and why have those targets gone up the past two years?
It's not a budget target. It's a line item as to a predicted amount. And you will know obviously from the way civil forfeiture works that it will be quite variable from year to year, depending on what cases – don't forget, the police recommend the cases to the Civil Forfeiture Office, which ones are taken forward.
Why do 99 per cent of the people who are targeted in B.C. settle in the office's favour, when Ontario says its cases settle about half the time?
I can't tell you about Ontario. All I can tell you about is British Columbia. And the cases that the police recommend, they recommend strong cases to the Civil Forfeiture Office. These are not taken lightly.
We've written about people who despite asserting their innocence gave up on fighting about the civil forfeiture process, or were about to give up. Are you concerned people who did not receive ill-gotten gains have gotten caught up in the system?
The proceeds which are forfeited to government are the proceeds from unlawful activity. They are determined, there is a determination made that there is unlawful activity. And sometimes they go to court, sometimes they're settled out of court. Either way, the court approves them.
If someone settles the court isn't necessarily going to hear about the merits of the alleged unlawful activity. Is it possible someone has gotten caught up in the system and didn't get due process?
Let's go back to the goals of the program, how the program works. Police refer these cases to the office of civil forfeiture. We're talking here about the proceeds of unlawful activity. We're talking about criminals, people who have committed unlawful activity not keeping the proceeds of crime. That money from that goes into crime-prevention programs.
Some offences that have typically fallen under other acts – such as the Wildlife Act, Motor Vehicles Act, or Employment Standards Act – have been pursued under the Civil Forfeiture Act? Why are the other acts not adequate? Are regulatory offences crimes?
I used the word "crimes." But the more general description is unlawful activity so that does cover a spectrum of unlawful activity of one kind or another.
This interview has been edited and condensed.