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How Cops Use Civil Forfeiture to Keep The Public In The Dark About Surveillance

Buying equipment with the funds is “essentially double-bookkeeping,” critics say.

Police across Canada are using civil forfeiture laws to seize everything from houses and cars to small amounts of cash from people who sometimes haven't been convicted of a crime. Some of this money is paying for cutting-edge surveillance equipment, a practice that critics say keeps the public in the dark about police capabilities.

"We are very suspect about what is being purchased [with forfeiture funds]," said Micheal Vonn, policy director for the BC Civil Liberties Association, in an interview. "We have very little public insight into the kinds of equipment that police are using."

"You have a potential for secretly acquired equipment that [isn't] vetted for privacy implications"

Police grants funded by forfeiture dollars are doled out separately from public policing budgets and awarded directly by forfeiture offices or provincial ministries. The grant process is subject to less public scrutiny than the tabling of a municipal policing budget. As a result, Vonn said, there is greater potential for law enforcement to acquire and use equipment that could infringe on fundamental freedoms.

"When you add in what is essentially dual book-keeping, where [purchases] are kept even more off-the record than in the current system, you have a potential for secretly acquired equipment that [isn't] vetted for privacy implications," Vonn said.

While some civil forfeiture funds are spent on programs for at-risk youth and other community outreach initiatives, documents show that a portion of the funds go towards buying surveillance equipment for police.

In British Columbia, past Freedom of Information requests have revealed that dozens of grants awarded to police by the Civil Forfeiture Office paid for Cellebrite phone extractors, GPS tracking systems for vehicles and long-distance surveillance equipment. Police in the small BC city of Abbotsford received a $9,985 civil forfeiture-funded grant in 2014 for a "portable mobile surveillance system," the capabilities of which aren't known because the grant document does not describe the device in greater detail.

"We're seeing an increase in police's [use of] technology to surveil people"

In Manitoba, the Winnipeg Police Service used $365,000 in civil forfeiture grants to purchase unspecified surveillance equipment, an automated license plate reader and two cargo vans. In Ontario, law enforcement grants from both criminal and civil forfeitures were used to fund the deployment of surveillance equipment in the province's biggest cities, with no public oversight.

Anthony Morgan, a human rights and state accountability lawyer in Toronto, said in a phone call that the lack of transparency associated with grant-funded police equipment creates a gap in the public's understanding of how police services are operating.

"Year over year, we're seeing an increase in police's [use of] technology to surveil people. We are supposed to enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy; police are a public service [and] we should know how they are using this equipment."

According to a spokesperson for the provincial agency Manitoba Justice, in 2013-14, 10 law enforcement agencies in that province received grants from the Criminal Property Forfeiture Fund for equipment and training, totalling approximately $664,000. In the same year, about $185,000 was distributed from the same fund to individual victims or the Victims' Assistance Fund, the representative explained in an email.

Brendan Crawley of the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General said in an email that the Civil Remedies for Illicit Activities Office has given "educational presentations" about civil forfeiture to around 300 law enforcement officers in each of the past two years. The Victoria Police Department declined to comment on the force's use of civil forfeiture.

Read More: Canadian Police Don't Want to Talk About How They Spend Surveillance Dollars

While Canada's Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that civil forfeiture laws don't violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, recent seizures in Ontario have raised the ire of judges and outraged people who've had their property taken.

A 2014 analysis of civil forfeiture regimes in BC and Ontario in the Western University's Journal of Legal Studies argued that incentives built into civil forfeiture programs can encourage police to pursue more civil forfeitures. "In operation, the greater the incentives contained within the institutional framework, the more public enforcers will use forfeiture laws," the study states.

Despite recent pushback from courts and victims, provinces continue to expand their power to forfeit cash and goods—and on the way, bulk up on their surveillance capabilities.

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