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Friday 23 August 2019
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Letters to the Editor

Asset forfeiture bill is dangerous

THE EDITOR: The Attorney General has tabled a 93-page bill – the Civil Asset Recovery and Management and Unexplained Wealth Bill, 2019.

My understanding is that civil asset forfeiture – unlike criminal asset forfeiture – does not require conviction of the person involved or even that criminal charges be brought against the person or people from whom the supposed “illegal” property is taken by the State.

Technically, what is involved is a lawsuit by the Government against the property itself – in legal terms this is referred to as
in rem. Although stranger than fiction, it is the inanimate object – a yacht, a million-dollar gold chain, or a fabulous holiday resort – that is the defendant in such a proceeding. Such a “law” is not constrained by as rigorous a standard of proof as would be applicable in the situation of criminal asset forfeiture.

My impression is that where such a law exists, the property is often seized from individuals who end up not being convicted of – or even charged with – a crime. Hence, even if the property owner is tried for a crime related to the seized property, there is no guarantee they will be given back their property upon acquittal.

As if this is not bad enough, my reading of the AG’s bill points to other contrived legal loopholes that seem to be designed to exonerate those who advise the seizure of people’s property. Would this law be subject to the Freedom of Information Act?

I am left to wonder why the State should be more concerned with a physical asset than with the person whose supposedly criminal activity engineered the acquisition of that particular property or item of wealth? Such a law seems completely irrational and certainly opens a way for covertly orchestrated extortionist political pressure to be brought against targeted individuals.

More alarming yet is the fact that – if my understanding is correct – those “trustees” attached to the illegal wealth items can remain perfectly obscure. What legalistic hypocrisy!

Should we as a nation suggest to the Attorney General that he should opt for advancing a bill that envisages an
in personam (against the person) action and would require that the State charge the property used or derived from the crime along with the defendant? In such a case a jury would decide if the property is forfeitable and only then would the court issue an order for forfeiture.

As a citizen, I certainly would prefer this course of action rather than the potentially arbitrary power granted to a “committee” – especially in this beloved TT.

STEVE SMITH via e-mail

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