Looking back through Brandon Sun archives, it appears we’ve used the inverted cliché “crime does pay — for the cops” a lot in the past few years.
The impetus is the annual doling out of provincial grants to buy specialized police equipment using money from the Criminal Property Forfeiture Fund.
We have criticized that fund, and the law that allows it, in the past. It is an overly broad law that invites abuse. Everyone can support the concept that criminals should lose their dirty money. But this law allows any property to be seized if it’s related to even suspected criminal activity. The crime never has to actually be proven.
In 2011, Sun columnist Kerry Auriat helped sound the alarm, noting that the reach of the law extended, in theory, to any crime ever committed anywhere in the world.
“If a person was convicted of speeding decades ago,” Auriat wrote, “the car he was driving (assuming he still owns it) and possibly the garage he stored it in (and potentially the house attached to the garage) could be seized and sold by the province.”
That’s frightening. And it’s no longer theoretical.
In one rural Nevada county, sheriffs apparently use just the threat of civil forfeiture laws to simply take cash from people who are pulled over for speeding. Hand over whatever’s in your car, and they never even give you a ticket — but you’re still out the cash. That’s according to Forbes and The Associated Press.
In British Columbia, which has a similar law to Manitoba’s, a man who was ultimately acquitted of growing marijuana still lost his farm to the province.
It’s easy for politicians to support these seizure laws when they get to have smiling photo-ops as they hand over new toys to police forces in every municipality.
The latest was on Monday, when provincial Justice Minister Andrew Swan was in town to give out $172,000, to be shared between the Brandon Police Service, the Dakota Ojibway Police Service and the RM of Cornwallis Police Service.
That’s a big chunk of change, and it’s increasing.
The Brandon Police Service got $96,000 this week. Last year, about $60,000. The year before that, just $18,000. The year before that, it was so little that Brandon’s amount wasn’t even broken out of the province-wide list. That year, the entire province shared $150,000, with more than two-thirds going to Winnipeg and Selkirk forces.
That’s right. This year Brandon and its two neighbours got more money from the fund than the entire province shared in 2011. That suggests a dramatic increase in how broadly this law is being applied. More houses and cars are being seized and sold.
But even if all this money was being taken directly from convicted criminals, it would be tough to be thrilled. Forfeiture funds are supposed to be shared with victims and victim support services.
This year alone, the province will hand out more than $1.2 million to police. In the past three years, they’ve given just half that to victims and victim groups.
We’re concerned that the benefits of this overly broad law are flowing too much in one direction.
Police forces are well organized and probably better able to apply for money from the fund. Chronically underfunded and understaffed victim organizations may not be. The province also says they won’t fund day-to-day operations, only capital purchases. But they fund new policing positions from elsewhere in their budget, meaning this is a policy decision that hits victim groups harder.
Although we believe the entire law should be scaled back (we have serious doubts about whether it would stand a Charter challenge), in the meantime the province should commit itself to sharing the money 50/50 between police and victims groups.
Half of $96,000 would be a windfall for Brandon-area organizations like domestic violence shelters, counselling services or even as a fund to help pay back people who have had their windows broken or bikes stolen. And that might do more good than yet another SWAT-like shield for Brandon’s rarely used riot cops.
Next year, we hope we can write “Crime pays back — for victims.”
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition June 18, 2014