$3m assets frozen in Bay

By Jordan Bond

Police have restrained more than $3 million worth of assets in the Bay under the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act. Photo/FILE
Police have restrained more than $3 million worth of assets in the Bay under the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act. Photo/FILE

More than $3 million of property, cars, cash and other assets has been frozen in the Bay by the Government under a contentious law used to target gangs.

The Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act 2009 allows police to freeze and take someone's assets without ever finding them guilty of any criminal activity or even laying criminal charges.

The Government said the law gave police greater abilities to stifle gang activity, but lawyers said the move was an overreach and brought fundamental civil liberties into question.

Assets worth $3m - including $1.7m worth of assets from Tauranga-based "drug mastermind" Gary Read - have been restrained under civil forfeiture laws since 2010.

Seventeen assets have been sold, totalling $137,465.

None of this money went into the Proceeds of Crime fund, instead being used to pay administration costs, and repaying fines and reparation owed by the asset owners.

Assets which police suspected had been acquired as a result criminal activity could be restrained and forfeited to the Crown on the civil standard of proof, "the balance of probabilities" - a lower level than the criminal standard of "beyond reasonable doubt".

Police Minister Judith Collins said the act had been working effectively.

"Police have been extremely successful in investigating and seizing the dirty money of criminals and gangs since the Government passed this legislation.

"Police use all of the tools at their disposal, including the legislation which has strengthened their ability to go after the assets and profits of organised criminals."

She said 88 per cent of restraints and 96 per cent of forfeitures have been linked to drugs and/or organised crime.

"Gangs, organised crime, drugs and family violence drive much of police daily workload, and reducing these harms and crimes is a priority for the Police Commissioner and the Government."

She said the outcome of cases was determined in court.

Lawyers said the overall intent of the law was positive but aspects of its application should be questioned.

Tauranga lawyer Bill Nabney said he believed the law was fair because it gave the owner the right to prove the assets were legally obtained.

"You do have the ability as a citizen to rebut the presumption, if you can show that you had a legitimate source of income which generated that ability to purchase those [assets]."

However, he said the law seemed to skew towards gangs and drug crime, despite those committing fraud and tax evasion being equally as liable to civil forfeiture action.

"I don't think it's being applied as it probably could be, because I think the people who perpetrate the biggest crimes are white collar criminals, and I haven't seen any of them being subject to the regime."

Labour police spokesman and MP Stuart Nash said he supported the law, but only if the offending was proven in court to a criminal standard.

"If you gain wealth or assets out the proceeds of crime, you should hand them back to the state when you get caught.

"I would be very uncomfortable with seizing citizens' assets without proof of guilt. Reasonable probability is not strong enough."

He echoed Mr Nabney's concerns about what seemed to be targeted action toward gang activity rather than other forms of organised crime.

"I suspect [it is] because targeting gangs make good headlines, and every government likes to be seen to be tough on gangs, whereas white collar crime [is] not as newsworthy," he said.

The removal a criminal conviction necessary for asset forfeiture was a significant change from the old legislation, the Proceeds of Crime Act 1991, said lawyer Graeme Edgeler.

Mr Edgeler said it was not fair for the Crown to take someone's house, cars and savings without proving any criminal activity.

"The Government should not have the power to punish you unless it can prove to a pretty high standard that you've actually done something illegal," Mr Edgeler said.

"Even if there's a 49 per cent chance you're completely innocent, that the Government can take everything you've worked for away is pretty serious."

Police last week secured the forfeiture of $1.17 million in property, including a whole forestry block, from Valentine Nicholas, who lives in the Bay of Plenty.

However, those assets come under the Waikato policing district, not the Bay of Plenty, so are not included in the region's $3 million tally.

Justice Hinton in the Tauranga High Court found the senior gang member was unable to show evidence of a "legitimate source of income" and ruled his assets had been gained through criminal offending.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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