Jordan Bond is a reporter for NZME's Local Network.

$3m worth of assets frozen in Bay

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Police have seized more than $3 million worth of assets under a controversial law. PHOTO/FILE
Police have seized more than $3 million worth of assets under a controversial law. PHOTO/FILE

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

It comes as police revealed last week a senior Maketu Mongrel Mob member has had more than $1 million in assets seized under the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act 2009 - despite being found not guilty of charges against him.

The Act 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 says the law gives police greater abilities to stifle gang activity, but some lawyers say the move is an overreach and brings fundamental civil liberties into question.

Assets worth $3 million have been restrained under civil forfeiture laws since 2010 in the Bay of Plenty area. Seventeen assets have been sold, totalling $137,465.

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

Police this 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 crime services co-ordinator Detective Senior Sergeant John Wilson said the case was "an indication of the sort of results that can be achieved using this legislation".
"That was an investigation by the Bay of Plenty organised crime unit based here (in Rotorua)."

Mr Wilson said police in Rotorua had been seizing assets belonging to gang members convicted of crime for a long time but the point of difference with the Nicholas case was that it didn't involve a conviction.

But Rotorua lawyer Tim Grimwood said the law struck at fundamental principles of justice.

"I think that threshold should be higher, and I think it's being used to undermine the basic human rights of the presumption of innocence because it's essentially saying you had proceeds from criminal activity without actually being found guilty of having conducted criminal activity," Mr Grimwood said.

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

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 is determined in court.

The Rotorua Daily Post sought the Police Minister's response to Mr Grimwood's comments but she did not directly address his concerns.

The removal of 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."

The Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act 2009
■Police can freeze assets without finding owners guilty of criminal activity or laying criminal charges
■Proceeds of crime can be forfeited and made available for agencies to fund new, improved or expanded projects

- Rotorua Daily Post

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