OTTAWA — Provincial governments have the constitutional right to seize cash, homes and other property suspected to be proceeds of crime, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Friday.
The unanimous decision upholds provincial laws that permit police to confiscate goods they suspect they suspect are ill-gotten, even if they do not have enough evidence to lay charges.
The court rejected an Ontario man’s argument that provincial seizure laws, adopted in recent years to deter crime and compensate victims, tread on federal jurisdiction over criminal law.
“Crime imposes substantial costs on provincial treasuries,” Justice Ian Binnie wrote in the 7-0 decision.
“It would be out of step with modern realities to conclude that a province must shoulder the cost to the community of criminal behaviour but cannot use deterrence to suppress it.”
Robin Chatterjee, a former student at Carleton University in Ottawa, was en route to his parents’ Toronto home in March 2003 when police pulled him over and seized his money and goods.
Chatterjee was stopped because his car was missing a front licence plate. Police also found a light ballast, one light socket and an exhaust fan — items that law enforcement officers contend could be used for marijuana grow operations. They also confiscated $29,000 cash.
Police did not arrest the young man because they said they did not have enough evidence.
But Ontario’s Civil Remedies Act, a 2001 forfeiture law targeted at organized crime, does not require a criminal conviction.
A key issue is the case is whether provinces have the power to seize goods they suspect were ill-gotten, given that criminal law is a federal matter.
Most provinces have similar forfeiture laws and eight provinces participated in the Supreme Court case to argue they have the constitutional power to seize the proceeds of crime.
Ontario, which led the charge, maintained that its Civil Remedies Act is not criminal law, but rather a civil process designed to compensate victims of crime and help with crime prevention by making it less attractive to pursue.
As of August 2007 the province had seized $15 million in assets, according to court records.
Chatterjee’s lawyers countered that crime is a federal responsibility and, therefore, the Ontario government’s legislation forcing the forfeiture of everything from houses to cash is outside provincial jurisdiction.
British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia all have forfeiture laws, according to arguments filed in the Supreme Court.
Two lower courts sided with the Ontario government in the case, including the Ontario Court of Appeal, which ruled in May 2007 that the criminal law is not a “watertight compartment” that precludes provincial involvement.
Another issue in the case is whether property seizure constitutes punishment. The Ontario government says it does not, because it is confiscating something that never rightfully belonged to the person in the first place.
– Article from The Ottawa Citizen.