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Civil Forfeitures Expected to Increase in Canada Following Cannabis Legalization

Defense lawyers warn Canadian citizens that police may increase their use of civil forfeiture to crack down those breaking the new marijuana laws. Civil forfeiture is the process in which police can seize property without having to charge the person with a crime. Civil forfeiture of houses, money, vehicles, or any other property suspected of being involved in criminal activity in eight provinces. This option is more appealing to law enforcement because the burden of proof necessary for seizing property is far lower than that for placing criminal charges.

Vancouver criminal defense lawyer, Kyla Lee predicts an increase in civil forfeiture after legalization kicks in.

“Most people are expecting a decrease, but it will increase. We will see people in possession of cannabis outside of the legal [limit], and the province will use civil forfeiture to enforce the law,” she said.

Lee went onto explain that there’s more of an incentive for the government to use civil forfeiture. This tactic is more effective in disrupting illegal marijuana distributors and growers than jailing criminals.

British Columbia has one of the most aggressive civil forfeiture programs in the nation. They raked in more than $30 million from their forfeitures between 2014 and 2017. Their efforts are focused on seizing assets believed to be involved with suspected illegal marijuana cultivators. A move that Lee sees as a “cash grab.”

“There’s a pattern by the British Columbian government to use [forfeitures] in place of placing criminal charges, she said. “I get lots of clients who have their vehicles seized and are never charged with anything. They’re stopped for a traffic violation, the officer finds something unlawful and the vehicle is seized.”

Police don’t typically directly benefit financially from forfeitures, but there is an indirect financial incentive for police to use civil and criminal forfeitures. The incentive is that provinces use the money generated by property seizures, obtained through things like police auctions, to provide police with special grants that provide the funds for secret surveillance programs, high-tech spying gear, and other questionable policing initiatives.

Derek From, a lawyer based in Calgary who monitors civil forfeitures for the Canadian Constitution Foundation, said that, in the long run, the only thing that can change forfeiture regimes is to have ongoing public pressure.

“if people got sufficiently upset [about forfeiture], a bill in the legislature would be soon to follow,” he said.

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