Bevan Hurley

Bevan Hurley is the Herald on Sunday chief reporter.

Depriving the guilty of their assets

Drug grannies are losing their diamonds and Mr Bigs of the crime world are being stripped of their houses, cars and investments

Around $70m has been frozen by court orders in the past eight months. Photo / Thinkstock
Around $70m has been frozen by court orders in the past eight months. Photo / Thinkstock

From drug-dealing grannies with a penchant for diamond rings to white collar fraudsters, those who profit from crime are in the crosshairs of police.

A staggering $150 million has been seized by police in the 3 years since they were allowed to go beyond seeking convictions, to investigate where the money ultimately ended up. Among the hundreds of criminals targeted are grandmothers Pamela Green and Sandra McMahon.

Green, 65, thought that investing the proceeds of her $100,000-a-year morphine sulphate drug business in jewellery was a sound investment.

But a court last month heard the Crown was seeking to confiscate her $23,000 diamond ring and $13,000 gold watch, along with her two luxury beachside properties and BMW car together valued at $1.3m.

Her fellow drug-pushing grandmother, McMahon, is being asked to hand over six properties and a fleet of luxury cars after earning millions of dollars from selling cannabis.

Drug dealers make up most of asset and cash seizures, but cops are going after other criminals.

Figures released under the Official Information Act show murderers, forgers and white collar fraudsters are also being targeted, although in smaller numbers.

Detective Inspector Peter Devoy said the financial crime unit was receiving more requests from Inland Revenue, the Serious Fraud Office and the Ministry of Social Development to help recover assets.

"The basics of organised crime is to make money. Part of that is money laundering, turning bad money into good money, making it appear legitimate," he said.

"Going to jail is seen as part and parcel of the risks of work, but their profits are now in our sights."

What started as a trickle back in December 2009, when the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act was passed, has become a torrent.

The pace of seizures and restraint orders had increased, as police and prosecutors become more familiar with the laws, to such an extent that around $70m has been frozen by court orders in the past eight months. Former Law Commission deputy president Warren Young said the new law had allowed police to target "Mr Bigs" who kept themselves a step removed from criminal offending.

"Where a person has unlawfully benefited to the tune of $30,000 or more, even if you can't identify a specific offence, there is a provision designed to enable you to attack the so-called Mr Bigs, who sit in the background and are the masterminds of criminal activity and have a very significant volume of assets, the origins of which cannot be explained. "These are people who get others to commit criminal activity on their behalf." Civil rights advocates like Peter Williams, QC, have questioned whether there is enough protection for ordinary people, because the standard of proof for seizing assets is lower than that required for a criminal conviction.

Devoy said police had won a number of forfeitures where the defendant has been found not guilty such as Paul Szeto. Police seized the sickness beneficiary's luxury cars despite him being found not guilty of methamphetamine dealing.

Young said there were enough checks and balances to ensure the law was being used correctly.


Numbers

Value of assets seized under Criminal
Proceeds (Recovery) Act 2009, as at Mar 31, 2013:

• Residential property - $57.7m
• Lifestyle blocks - $11m
• Farms/orchards - $13m
• Commercial property - $2.3m
• Cars/vans/four-wheel drives - $10.5m
• Boats - $1.2m
• Cash/bank accounts - $22.7m
• Bonus bonds/shares - $4.5m
• Stock in trade - $10,000
• Artwork - $240,925
• Furniture and effects - $6,000
• Plant and equipment - $609,104
• Book debts - $38,861
• Jewellery* - $476,457 (*Includes precious metals)
Total: $125.6m**

(**The Official Assignee says the total value of assets seized comes to $150 million, but they are currently managing $125m.)

Source: Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment

- Herald on Sunday

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