The B.C. government is promising to crack down on locally-organized criminals, including money launderers and corrupt foreign nationals who are looking to park their illicit money in the province.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth tabled changes to the Civil Forfeiture Act that will make it more difficult for criminals to hide their illegal assets by allowing officials to ask courts for unexplained wealth orders.
The order would compel individuals suspected of crimes to explain how they acquired their wealth and allow for the confiscation of property, without proving criminality, by reversing the burden of proof. This could include local drug dealers benefiting from the toxic drug crisis who are hiding gains in real estate, or foreign authorities with limited income but expensive assets.
While the order won’t lead to the automatic forfeiture of property, it will allow for sufficient evidence in civil litigation, if that’s pursued. Meanwhile, police cannot access these orders for criminal investigations.
“By exposing property for forfeiture actions, we are removing this incentive and sending a clear message to anyone involved in organized crime that crime doesn’t pay,” Farnworth said.
Austin Cullen, who chaired the commission inquiring into B.C.-based money laundering, recommended the inclusion of these orders in the legislative arsenal in his final report published in September 2020.
“Let me see if I can put it as bluntly as possible: Just because the mob-boss’ spouse is not involved in illegal activity doesn’t mean they get to keep the house,” Farnworth said earlier this month.
In order to ensure safeguards against such orders being abused, Farnworth said the Civil Forfeiture Office will have to prove that the alleged criminal holds assets worth $75,000 or more in B.C., that they have insufficient income to purchase property and that there are serious allegations of the property being used for unlawful activity, or that property was directly or indirectly acquired as a result of unlawful activity.
But not everyone agrees these safeguards are enough.
“UWOs undermine privacy rights, the presumption of innocence, and the right to silence,” BC Civil Liberties Association said in its response to the s0-called Cullen Commission.
“They have only been adopted in a few countries and there is no credible evidence that they have been effective.”
Farnworth said his ministry looked at comparable legislation in New Zealand, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Authorities in the UK had to change the legislation after court challenges.
While Farnworth acknowledged that history, he expressed confidence that the new changes will withstand legal challenges. He also expressed confidence that the new legislation will be a hit in the court of public opinion.
British Columbians are sick and tired of organized crime, he said.