Cash from Nelson drug busts may be forfeited

Over $33,000 in cash seized by the Nelson Police Department in two separate drug busts could be forfeited to the Crown.

Over $33,000 in cash seized by the Nelson Police Department in two separate drug busts could be forfeited to the Crown.

The province’s civil forfeiture office has taken out ads stating the money will become government property unless a notice of dispute is filed within 60 days.

The first incident, involving $5,420, occurred in October 2009, when an officer stopped a truck on Front Street driven by a young man from Cranbrook.

Deputy chief Henry Paivarinta says the officer smelled marijuana inside the vehicle, and noticed a “substantial” amount of cash in the back seat. The vehicle was seized and a warrant to search it obtained, which found four freezer bags of marijuana weighing over 20 lbs.

The second incident in June 2010 saw officers check a suspicious vehicle parked late one night in the 400 block of Barker Street.

Police talked to two men in the car from North Bay, Ont. They smelled marijuana and searched the vehicle, which produced six cell phones, score sheets, drug paraphernalia, and $28,125 hidden in the fuse panel box.

Paivarinta says while they sometimes seize cash during an investigation, it’s not always possible to link it to a crime, particularly in smaller amounts.

However, the civil forfeiture process does not require criminal convictions, nor proof beyond a reasonable doubt to succeed — cases are instead decided on a balance of probabilities.

“If you can’t get people involved in drug activity with convictions in criminal court, this is a great remedy,” Paivarinta says. “It certainly acts as a more significant deterrent. Nothing hits them harder than hitting them in the pocket book.”

Money isn’t the only thing seized through civil forfeiture: homes and cars are confiscated and auctioned off. Proceeds are put toward crime prevention and victim services.

The program was introduced in 2005 and netted over $5 million last year — although property worth tens of millions more is still being processed. Paivarinta says three or four Nelson homes where grow-ops have been found are up for forfeiture.

He adds while the concept is relatively new in BC, it has been used in the US for decades, where a percentage of the proceeds are sometimes returned to the departments that seized it.

By contrast, the Nelson Police Department will not directly see any of the money forfeited to the Crown.

“We get no return on it,” Paivarinta says. “It’s unfortunate because the agency that does the investigation has a tremendous amount of resources and man hours tied up. It’s all in the line of duty but the province reaps the benefits. It would be nice to see some of [the money] repatriated to the agency that did the legwork.”

He suggests something similar to the province’s traffic fine revenue sharing system “would be a nice gesture to at least help cover costs.”

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