British Columbia’s Civil Forfeiture Office has seized and sold a Downtown Eastside single-room occupancy hotel for more than $800,000 – despite the fact the building’s owner was not charged with a crime.The Vancouver Police Department, which investigated the file and referred it to the Civil Forfeiture Office, announced the seizure at a news conference Wednesday.
Sergeant Randy Fincham, a police spokesman, said four people were arrested as a result of the Project Twizzler investigation and charged with possession for the purpose of trafficking. Sgt. Fincham alleged the four men were running a drug ring out of the single-room occupancy hotel and used intimidation and violence – including head-shavings – to get area residents to sell drugs.
Sgt. Fincham said charges were not laid against the building manager or the owner, but they “ought to have known that what was going on was criminal activity.” He said some suites had been “fortified” and a security system set up.
The police spokesman noted the civil forfeiture process is distinct from the criminal justice process and has a lower burden of proof.
The Globe and Mail earlier this year published a months-long investigation of the B.C. Civil Forfeiture Office. The office was created in 2006 to fight organized crime but now has a wider reach, and questions have been raised about fairness, public interest and transparency. Eight of 10 provinces have civil-forfeiture programs, but B.C. has been among the most aggressive in pursuing property and cash. Ninety-nine per cent of the people it targets settle on terms favourable to the office.
Three B.C. Liberal caucus members, the province’s Official Opposition and a former Liberal attorney-general have said the Civil Forfeiture Act should be reviewed. Justice Minister Suzanne Anton, however, has said a review is unnecessary.
The Civil Forfeiture Office does not need charges or a conviction to take on a case, and critics have said most people cannot afford to fight back, even in situations in which a landlord does not know what a tenant is up to.
Josh Paterson, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said the case announced Wednesday “underlines the whole problem with the civil forfeiture regime.” He said it’s “fundamentally unfair” that people who have been neither charged nor convicted can have property seized.
The building is located in the 600-block of Alexander Street. A notice of civil claim filed in B.C. Supreme Court by the director of civil forfeiture said the building was owned by a company known as 658 Alexander Street Ltd. The court document identified C. Hugh Maddin as the company’s director.
Mr. Maddin’s voicemail box was full and he could not be reached for comment Wednesday. His lawyer did not return a message.
In his response to the director of civil forfeiture’s notice of civil claim, Mr. Maddin denied any wrongdoing.
The building was sold late last month to a company named Rose Hotels Ltd. The company, in a statement, said it plans to keep operating the building as a single-room occupancy hotel.
Land title documents said the building sold for $820,000. Sgt. Fincham initially said it had sold for $850,000. He later said the price had been negotiated down, as the province wanted to include a clause to protect tenants against eviction.
With a report from Stephanie Chambers