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There has been a fair bit of talk about civil forfeiture in the news lately. The government of Prince Edward Island has not enacted civil forfeiture legislation. However, that may change if some well-intentioned but misguided city councillors in Charlottetown and Summerside get their way.
These laws are being sold to the public as a means for government to take criminals’ property and fight organized crime.
Indeed, this may be an effective measure for shutting down the drug houses that are becoming more prominent across the Island.
Unfortunately, civil forfeiture laws don’t just affect criminals. They allow governments to seize property from people who have never been charged with, or even suspected of, a crime.
In fact, if a property was used by anyone as “an instrument of crime,” or was “the proceeds of crime” the government could take that property from its rightful owner with no compensation.
The Canadian Constitution Foundation believes civil forfeiture laws are unconstitutional.
Think back a few decades when police raided homes of suspected gay couples or imagine just two years ago, if a friend came to visit and smoked a joint on your deck when you were not home or even today if a friend stopped by with some homemade moonshine or perhaps you own a duplex and your tenant has some unpaid parking tickets.
In fact, civil forfeiture could impact you even if no crime occurred but was simply suspected of having occurred.
Those favouring civil forfeiture may respond by arguing that these are unrealistic, extreme examples and yes, they may be. However, they are also very real examples of how handing excessive authoritarian powers to law makers can lead to fascist-like repercussions.
The authorities are right to be concerned about the increase of crime and illicit drug trafficking on P.E.I.
Let’s address the problem by arresting criminals. Seizing property creates havoc for the innocent and just means that the criminal networks will just move to another building.
Let’s also start treating addictions as a health issue instead of a crime so addicts can seek treatment instead of living in drug houses out of fear of being arrested if they seek help.
Again, I understand and appreciate the intent of the councillors, but civil forfeiture is not the answer.
Phil Ferraro is with the Institute for Bioregional Studies Ltd.