Over the last four years, cops in British Columbia have seized more than $30 million through a legal process known as civil forfeiture, using that cash to fund program, hire staff, purchase vehicles, and host conferences.
VICE News has obtained an up-to-date breakdown of where all that money is going.
Civil forfeiture, as a practise, has become popular with governments across North America, but has become reviled by civil liberties organizations. It gives governments a legal recourse to sue property and, if they can convince a judge it was likely used in the commission of a crime or bought with the proceeds of it, they can seize and sell the asset.
Under B.C.’s program, that money can go to anti-crime programs, youth initiatives, or to fund special police equipment and training.
The numbers, obtained through B.C.’s access to information system, shows that police have used $2.5 million of the total assets seized since 2014 to fund everything from covert surveillance equipment to tactical jackets to phone-hacking hardware.
The data is the most up-to-date and complete picture of how any government in the country uses civil forfeiture assets. The documents report that the revenue from the office has actually declined slightly. The Civil Forfeiture Office pulled in over $10 million in the 2016 fiscal year, $8.5 million last year, and has generated just $1.3 million in the ongoing fiscal year.
The B.C. government technically discloses this information on its website, releasing details on anti-gang initiatives and high school programs, but refuses to break down the amount distributed to police forces for equipment and training. The documents obtained by VICE News do exactly that. The Ontario government, meanwhile, is notoriously secretive about its forfeiture program.
What cops are buying with seized assets
$152,226: The amount paid to Israeli company Cellebrite, which makes and licenses phone-hacking hardware that can crack a wide variety of locked cellphones.
$238,154: The total cost for new surveillance equipment and GPS trackers for various detachments.
$15,748: The cost to license Geofeedia to the Prince George RCMP. The program is used to geotarget social media posts, giving police potentially intrusive surveillance powers. Facebook and Twitter cut off access to Geofeedia in 2016 after the American Civil Liberties Union raised the alarm on the possible issues around the program.
$2,500: Cost to fund a monument to two fallen officers from a detachment near Chilliwack.
$352,360: Salary costs to fund various civilian “investigative assistant” jobs.
$34,809: Funds for the West Vancouver Police Department to buy an automatic license plate recognition system.
$13,286: Cost for a “long range acoustic device active warning system,” which are generally used by riot police in crowd control. Another $8,429 went towards ballistic shields.
$10,000: Security and anti-gang training session involving live fire drills. Thousands more went to tactical equipment.
Under the province’s civil forfeiture rules, only 10 percent of the Civil Forfeiture Office’s spending can go towards police forces. This data shows only about 8.5 percent of the office’s budget goes to police forces.
“This is to fund specialized equipment and/or training that is not otherwise covered by a police department’s budget,” reads an explanation of the office’s funding guidelines.
Yet numerous items in this breakdown are run-of-the-mill policing operations, like safety equipment, riot gear, mooring for police boats, and computers.
Other programs do seem exceptional, like funding for conferences, youth initiatives, or expensive radar and radio equipment.
The whole civil forfeiture system has been under attack for years. Critics point out that the government can seize citizens’ cash, homes, and cars without ever convicting them of a crime.
The Canadian Constitution Foundation has taken aim at the various provincial systems through research and legal action. In one report card, they gave B.C. an ‘F’ grade, writing that the province uses the legislation “to acquire valuable property without regard to its statutory purposes of deterring crime and providing victims with compensation.”
VICE News previously reported that the B.C. government is trying to seize a Hells Angels clubhouse over crimes they suspect could happen in the future.
In the funding documents obtained by VICE News, there was even $1,000 in funding to train the RCMP’s Integrated Homicide Investigation Team in “non-conviction based asset forfeiture.”
Here’s the full breakdown of the spending: