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Government backpedals on civil forfeiture act

The Yukon Party caved to mounting political pressure and shelved its controversial Civil Forfeiture Act Wednesday. Government MLAs, who as recently as last week touted the proposed legislation as "a good act," voted in favour of postponing the act's passing to a future session.

The Yukon Party caved to mounting political pressure and shelved its controversial Civil Forfeiture Act Wednesday.

Government MLAs, who as recently as last week touted the proposed legislation as “a good act,” voted in favour of postponing the act’s passing to a future session.

“It’s very rare that a government backs down,” New Democratic member Steve Cardiff told a news conference Thursday morning.

The act’s defeat was thanks in large part to the NDP, which reignited debate on the act Wednesday afternoon with a motion calling for it to be shelved until public consultation could take place.

The act had only been vetted by the RCMP and the Justice Department’s Crown prosecution office before it was introduced in the house at the end of March.

“The government totally - 100 per cent - failed to communicate to the public what it was about,” said Cardiff. “It was like, ‘Here, eat your darts, because it’s good for you.’”

The act would have given police and Justice officials broad new powers to seize people’s property, sparking fear of abuses.

Also, police could seize any property they believed was used for crimes even if the owner was innocent. The act would have channelled forfeiture through civil courts rather than criminal courts, meaning police could seize property without a criminal conviction.

The act also relied heavily on regulations, making it unclear what would happen to third parties whose property was seized - such as a landlord during a grow-op sting - and what would happen with money collected from civil seizure.

Not only that, the act would have been retroactive for 10 years and allowed the Justice Department to seize documents from all public bodies in the Yukon.

Public pressure picked up this week with a petition hitting the streets and a Facebook group, “Yukoners for Civil Freedom,” attracting more than 100 members.

“We owe them a debt of gratitude for making their voices heard and calling the offices of politicians,” said Cardiff.

The debate became a game of political hot potato Wednesday. Premier Dennis Fentie tried to deflect responsibility for the act by suggesting it was “a child of the legislature.”

His argument hedged on a one-sentence motion passed on December 16 requesting the government introduce civil forfeiture law.

“It was a motion, not a piece of legislation,” said Cardiff.

On top of that, no one from the NDP voted for it. Todd Hardy was ill from cancer that day. And Cardiff was in Copenhagen at the climate change conference.

Last week, Justice Minister Marian Horne defended the act despite admitting it had received no scrutiny outside the government.

“It’s what Yukoners have been asking for,” she said on April 19.

Civil forfeiture is a law-enforcement strategy spawned by the war on drugs ideology in the United States. Ontario’s civil forfeiture act recently cleared a constitutional challenge at the Supreme Court, sparking interest in similar legislation across the country.

During last week’s debate, Horne revealed only the RCMP and Crown prosecutors had been consulted during the act’s drafting.

“That is valuable input, but that is not enough,” said the New Democratic leader Elizabeth Hanson.

She disagreed with the idea the act was the brainchild of justice bureaucrats eager to jump on the civil forfeiture bandwagon.

The Fentie government had a role in it too, she said.

“This is ideologically consistent with the government.”

But the NDP’s former leader Todd Hardy spearheaded similar legislation four years ago.

The Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act, also known as SCAN, allows for people to be evicted from their homes based on the suspicion of drug trafficking and can be enforced without a criminal conviction.

Despite a constitutional challenge to SCAN last year, Hardy defended the act.

“The investigations are generally quite extensive,” said Hardy.

“There’s videotaping and processes and steps for people to stop their activity and change their behaviour and warnings given,” he said.

“(Civil forfeiture) is far more draconian.”

The Liberals, who were initially slow to comment on the act, joined the chorus with their own criticisms of the government this week.

“It’s a complete flip-flop and we’re glad the government has backed down,” Liberal Don Inverarity said in a news release.

The New Democrats are not opposed to killing the act.

“We’re not saying people should be able to keep the proceeds of crime, but we’re saying there needs to be appropriate safeguards from innocent people having their property seized,” said Cardiff.

It’s not clear what the solution will be, since the act unequivocally states civil forfeiture can occur even if no criminal conviction has been made.

There should at least be an appeal process in the act to deal with unjust seizures, said Hanson.

“There’s no provisions in his legislation for that,” she said. “It’s a pretty backward and draconian approach.”

At the very least, more public consultation will give the party more latitude to oppose the act should it come up short again.

“Even if we still feel it doesn’t achieve what was heard in public consultations, we have a stronger voice and rationale to say no,” said Hanson.

A phone call to Fentie’s office was not returned.

See related story: Democracy in action

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