The Yukon Party government plans to use its majority to ram through the proposed Civil Forfeiture Act.
That worries the Liberals and NDP, which are both calling on the government to put the draft law on hold until public consultations are held.
But Justice Minister Marian Horne notes the bill enjoyed unanimous support when it received second reading in December. And the territory has met with select groups – namely, Crown prosecutors and police.
So Horne says she sees no reason to delay the bill becoming law. “As far as I’m concerned, this bill is good,” Horne said Wednesday.
She also repeatedly suggested the opposition is soft on crime.
“Is the opposition opposed to being tough on crime and having safer communities?” Horne asked.
“I think we’re opposed to being tough on innocent people,” Liberal MLA Don Inverarity replied.
Boosters of the law say it will make it easier for the RCMP to seize ill-gotten gains from organized crime. Critics warn it will also open the door to abuses or unintentional screwups that could cost innocent people their vehicles, houses and other property.
The law would lower the burden of proof required for police to seize property.
Currently, RCMP must meet the criminal court’s test of there being no reasonable doubt when seizing the proceeds of crime. By pursuing property confiscation through civil court, the bill lowers this threshold of evidence to what’s called a balance of probabilities.
Being cleared of criminal wrongdoing is no guarantee that you would see your property returned under this law. And anyone planning to challenge a forfeiture would need to be able to afford a lawyer.
Even if you win a challenge, it’s unlikely you would receive your property back, says the NDP’s Steve Cardiff. “It won’t be returned. It will be sold, more than likely – regardless of whether you’re a victim or a criminal,” he said Monday.
In Alberta, civil forfeiture was used to seize a rental house that was being used, unbeknownst to its owner, as a marijuana grow operation.
In British Columbia, a similar law was used to seize vehicles used in street racing, even when the racers were using borrowed vehicles.
This concerns the Liberals’ Darius Elias. He also worries that RCMP detachments could become dependent on forfeiture funds for revenue. This unintended consequence is especially noticeable in the United States, he said.
Eight jurisdictions in Canada have civil forfeiture laws. To Horne, that’s proof the law is sturdy enough to be passed. She says none of the laws differ in any important way.
Horne brushed aside fears that the law could be misused by police. “If there is punitive prosecution, the government can be sued, and it will assist in deterring crime,” she said.
If the opposition wants the law changed, they should put forward amendments, said Horne.
But Elias says it’s unlikely the government would consider amendments in good faith. He points to efforts this week to broaden the membership of a panel that will examine RCMP conduct in the territory.
The NDP proposed this change and received the backing of the Liberals, but the Yukon Party voted it down.
“Anything we put on the floor just gets thrown in the garbage,” Elias said in an interview.
It’s also unreasonable to expect a law as complicated as this one to be effectively amended by non-lawyers on the fly in the legislature, he said.
But one change Elias would like to see is an assurance that anyone who challenges a forfeiture would see their legal fees paid by the territory. This echoes a request made by Cardiff on Monday.
And both Elias and Cardiff want assurances that money obtained from forfeitures would go towards a fund for helping victims of crime, rather than into the government’s general revenues, as would currently be the case.
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