In 2001, I appeared before a committee of the Ontario legislature and predicted that Bill 155 — the province’s proposed “civil forfeiture” law — would violate the property rights of innocent individuals. The government passed the bill anyway, and other provinces soon followed suit.
These civil forfeiture laws — which few Canadians have even heard of — allow provincial governments to seize property that has allegedly been used in crime, or may constitute the proceeds of crime, even if nobody has ever been charged with, let alone convicted of, a related offence.
One unfortunate victim of Ontario’s law is Margaret Reilly of Orillia. Following in the footsteps of her father, an Anglican priest who operated a youth hostel for many years, Mrs. Reilly has worked with disadvantaged people from a young age. Her husband Terry, an insurance broker, shared her concern for the needy. He sat on the local housing committee, aiming to remedy the city’s homelessness problem.
Together, the couple tried to provide private housing for disadvantaged individuals in two rooming houses that they owned. They improved the houses and brought them up to fire code. Most of their tenants were referred to them by social workers, but sometimes even Orillia’s mayor would send people. The tenants were poor, uneducated and often on welfare. Many had addiction or mental health problems.
The Reillys actively assisted their tenants, driving them to detox centres and occasionally offering them employment. But some of the tenants apparently continued to use illegal drugs. Some may even have sold illicit drugs from their rooms. The Ontario government labelled the properties “crack houses” and claimed that the rents received by the Reillys — most of which came from tenants’ welfare payments — were “proceeds of crime.”
B.C.’s Civil Forfeiture Office can seize and sell citizens’ property — without so much as a criminal charge being laid
Marni Soupcoff: Ontario’s civil-forfeiture racket
In September 2008, heavily armed Ontario Provincial Police officers swooped in and seized the properties. The government got an order to “manage, preserve and secure” the houses, pending a trial to determine whether it would get to keep them.
Instead, the government has allowed the properties to degrade into a dilapidated state over the past six years. The Reillys’ private detective took photos proving that the drug dealing was ongoing, and possibly even more prevalent, under the province’s management. The province finally boarded the houses up three years ago and now complains about the expense of “maintaining” them.
Despite the squads of armed police officers at its disposal, the province was unable to prevent illegal activity in these houses, but somehow expected the landlords to do so. Police would go there armed “to ensure the safety of [the] officers,” but the landlords were supposed to evict the same tenants who frightened the cops without any backup or weaponry.
Mrs. Reilly did in fact seek an eviction order for three tenants, but the Landlord and Tenant Board denied it. I’m not surprised. I’ve seen tenants smirk out of a courtroom after a judge gave them yet another chance that their exhausted landlord was unwilling to grant. How many times was Mrs. Reilly supposed to try to evict her more problematic tenants before concluding that the system wouldn’t let her?
And who enabled these tenants to maintain their unemployed lifestyle while dealing drugs in the first place? The provincial government did, through its welfare system. The same government that then expected two private individuals to clean up the mess it had created, the same government that now proposes to steal Mrs. Reilly’s property because she couldn’t do what the province itself failed to do.
Recently, a judge held that the properties are to be sold, even though the trial still has not been held to determine whether Mrs. Reilly should get them back. In their current state — described by the government lawyer as “filthy,” and so bad that the government’s asset administrator donned a “hazmat suit” to enter — they won’t fetch much.
I suspect this particular mess may have had more to do with Orillia’s plan to renovate its downtown — by constructing a new library and civic square — without paying the compensation that normal expropriation procedures would have triggered. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been squandered on legal fees on both sides, and more will be spent on the trial.
This is the result of a law that was sold as a means of fighting organized crime and assisting crime victims. Sometimes it’s very rewarding being able to say “I told you so,” but this is one case where it’s hard to take much satisfaction over having been right 13 years ago.
Karen Selick is the litigation director for the Canadian Constitution Foundation.