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Police actions questioned in B.C. civil forfeiture case

A lawyer for a woman whose house was raided by the RCMP questioned Friday the decision by police to seize intimate photos of her and her husband in a dispute that has since grown to involve B.C.'s Civil Forfeiture Office.

Jennifer and David Johnson's home was raided by Surrey RCMP in June, 2009. Approximately $130,000 in cash was seized from the residence. Police have alleged they also discovered a marijuana grow operation with 276 plants and 18 pounds of dried marijuana. Criminal charges were laid against the couple, but later dropped.

The RCMP then referred the file to the Civil Forfeiture Office – a provincial government agency that has been criticized for its aggressive attempts to seize homes, vehicles and cash connected to unlawful activity, even from people who have not been convicted or charged. The Civil Forfeiture Office began proceedings in March, 2012, to seize the $130,000.

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In addition to the cash, officers involved in the initial raid seized photos of the couple that were kept in a safe.

Bibhas Vaze, the lawyer for Ms. Johnson, asked an RCMP officer about the seizure in B.C. Supreme Court on Friday – and Mr. Vaze suggested the officer's claim that the photos were returned a few months later was false.

"Forgive me, constable, if I find all of this completely unbelievable," Mr. Vaze said. "You messed up with respect to returning the photographs at an appropriate time and you've completely put together a story about doing so within four months of the period that the investigation occurred. Correct?"

The officer, Constable David Ryzuk, replied Mr. Vaze was incorrect. He said he returned the photos to Mr. Johnson in September, 2009. He said he did not return them sooner because he was waiting for direction on how to proceed.

However, Constable Ryzuk's notes indicated that he returned only receipts that month. The photos were not mentioned.

"I realize that I've only indicated [the receipts] … but what is true is that I did return the photographs at that same time," he told the court.

Mr. Vaze did not indicate when the photos might have been returned, suggesting only that it was at some point after the criminal proceedings.

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He also asked why the RCMP chose to take the photos at all.

"You'd agree with me that these photographs provide you no information with respect to the investigation that you were conducting at the time, correct?" Mr. Vaze asked.

"Other than they belong to the Johnsons," the officer replied.

The Civil Forfeiture Office, in its notice of civil claim, accused the Johnsons of using a hydro bypass to steal electricity for the marijuana grow-op. It said the search was conducted after a complaint from B.C. Hydro to the RCMP.

Criminal charges against the Johnsons were dropped after a Provincial Court judge ruled the alleged grow-op was "relatively small" and, at nearly three years, the case had taken too long to get to trial.

Mr. Johnson has said he kept large amounts of cash at his home because he doesn't believe in banks or trust them.

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Last June, the Johnsons told a B.C. Supreme Court judge the police search of their home violated their Charter rights. They alleged the search exceeded what was allowed by the warrant and said they weren't initially permitted to contact a lawyer. The couple also said it was unnecessary for RCMP officers to draw their guns on Mr. Johnson while he was in his vehicle, particularly since their three-year-old son was in the back seat.

The Johnsons told B.C. Supreme Court at the time their case should be bifurcated – in other words, that the alleged Charter violations should be heard before the case goes to trial. B.C. Supreme Court Justice Miriam Maisonville ruled in the Johnsons' favour.

The bifurcated proceeding continues next week.

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