A new report indicates the seizures of property by the government are often cash grabs for provincial governments, which have collected millions of dollars in assets as proceeds of crime.
Maggie Reilly has been fighting the province in court for the last seven years, after the government seized two of her rental properties in Orillia, following accusations that she was receiving drug money as rent from some of her tenants.
“We were shocked. I’ve been a good citizen all my life. I’ve never broken the law,” she told the Star.
“We had reserved those two buildings particularly to house people who are basically living on the fringes of society, people who other landlords are not comfortable renting to, but everyone’s entitled to a roof over their heads.”
Reilly, 55, is among a number of individuals across the country who have had property seized even though they’ve never been charged or convicted of a crime.
A new report indicates the seizures — part of a system known as civil forfeiture — are often cash grabs for provincial governments, which have collected millions of dollars in assets as proceeds of crime. Civil forfeiture legislation exists in eight provinces.
“Civil forfeiture laws allow provincial governments to seize property not only from criminals, but also from people who have never been charged with, or even suspected of, a crime,” says the report by the Canadian Constitution Foundation and Institute for Liberal Studies.
Ontario’s civil forfeiture system was given an F by the report. The province has distributed $21.2 million to victims to since 2003, according to the report, yet in 2013-14 alone, the province seized $22.9 million.
Significant forfeitures in Ontario include $19.8 million from a worldwide Ponzi scheme for distribution (via the U.S. Department of Justice) to 28,000 victims worldwide, and biker clubhouses in Oshawa and Thunder Bay, according to the Ministry of the Attorney General.
The report released this week also mentions an Ontario couple who lost their $400,000, 12-unit apartment because some renters were involved in illegal activities.
Forfeitures in other provinces, according to the report, include a man in Saskatchewan having his $7,500 truck taken away after selling $60 worth of OxyContin he legally owned to buy gas so he could drive to work.
Another issue with civil forfeiture is that money from the proceedings goes to provincial governments and police services with little transparency, the report says.
“It is difficult to know how much money collected by successful civil forfeiture applications goes towards compensating victims,” the report states. “Instead, it seems that much is used to purchase equipment for the police or is spent on trivial and improper expenses.”
Reilly claims most of her tenants were covered by social assistance.
“That’s the absurdity of it,” she said. “They’ve taken our buildings away because we were supposedly collecting rent that’s drug money when really it’s the Ontario government that’s paying the rent.”
Reilly’s lawyer said a judge signed off on the province’s desire to sell the two properties in 2014, but the sale has yet to happen.
According to a 2014 ruling in the case, the government accused Reilly and her husband of not acting as responsible owners, saying unlawful activity was taking place on the property, including drug use. The Reillys, according to the ruling, acknowledged the issues, but pointed to the problems inherent with renting to low-income residents.
A spokeswoman for Ontario Attorney General Madeleine Meilleur said the government does not comment on matters that are still before the courts.
“Civil forfeiture is intended to help suppress and discourage unlawful activity by undermining the ability to profit from or use profits to finance new unlawful activity,” said spokeswoman Christine Burke.
“The Ontario Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada have both upheld the constitutionality of the proceeds provisions of the Civil Remedies Act on both federalism and charter grounds.”
Reilly’s lawyer, Shawna Fattal, said what is “most disturbing” is the standard of proof used in a civil forfeiture proceeding.
“It’s the same as in civil actions, which is balance of probabilities, a far cry from beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the standard applied in criminal law,” she told the Star.
The report states this standard of proof makes it easier to seize property.
The two organizations that crafted the report listed a number of recommendations, including:
- Forfeiture should be available only when a property owner has been convicted of a provincial offence.
- Judges should have discretion to craft proportionate forfeiture orders.
- Civil forfeiture should be available only for property used or acquired by an owner convicted of a corresponding provincial offence where an identifiable victim was harmed.
- Revenue collected by successful civil forfeitures should compensate victims that suffered harm as a result of a convicted property owner’s acts.
- Each provincial civil forfeiture office should provide a full and accurate annual report on revenues raised and compensation disbursed.
Reilly, whose legal battle with the province continues, said the seizure of her properties has been devastating.
“I’m going to fight till the bitter end until it bankrupts me,” she said. “Because it’s just not right.”