Prosecuting drug offences
As the number of drug-related crimes prosecuted by the federal government grows, so have the number of property seizures.
The Public Prosecution Service of Canada has released its annual report and one thing, if not terribly surprising, is abundantly clear — the federal government is committed to putting pot-smokers in jail.
The federal government’s prosecution office tried more than 78,000 drug-related offences in the last reporting year.
And, as the report notes, “many are simple cases of possession of small quantities of marihuana.”
The PPSC is the main vehicle for which crimes are prosecuted under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. While the provinces may try the odd drug case, it’s usually the 1000-strong staff at the office, and their complement of freelance lawyers, who take on these cases.
More than half of the cases dealt with the PPSC are drug-related offences — that’s some 65,000 files. Another 13,600, or 12 per cent of the caseload, are related to the proceeds of crime in drug cases.
While the number of drug-related crimes the office tries has grown steadily, the number of related financial cases has skyrocketed.
The office tried three times as many cases relating to the proceeds of the drug trade as it did last year. And for those 2,300 cases in 2012-2013, they seized $39 million is assets.
In the 2014 report, the PPSC did not publish how much property they seized, but it’s sure to be substantially more.
Lawyers have noticed the uptick. “I think the PPSC pioneered the trend,” says Edward Prutschi, a partner at Adler Bytensky Prutschi Shikhman. “There has been a huge increase in Crowns using these laws to seize massive amounts of cash and property even from individuals who were either never charged or had their charges withdrawn or stayed.”
Prutschi says that these aren’t the organized crime busts that Canadians are used to seeing. They are being applied to all sorts of cases, in very strict measure, and they are often used to leverage deals with the accused.
“It used to be we’d expect to see forfeiture of relatively small amounts of cash, drugs, and clear offence-related property. Now the norm is to see attempted seizures of big-ticket items such as homes in grow-op scenarios, or cars in drug stops. I’ve even seen attempts to seize the furnishings of a home as personal ‘offence-related’ property,” he says.
Prutschi adds that sometimes it is unsuspecting family members, not the accused themselves, who are having their assets seized.
All in all, the PPSC — an initiative of the Conservative Government from 2006, which was intended to create a more independent federal prosecution service — is a remarkably cost-effective department.
The specialized Crowns in the office are tasked primarily with prosecutions in the North, terrorism-related crimes, war crimes, and other federal matters. Their relatively small staff focuses primarily on those complex cases. The drug cases, meanwhile, are farmed out to private defence counsel who act as Crown prosecutors.
Prutschi, who represents many clients who face drug-related charges, says the system works pretty well. He also adds that the relatively low rates for the private lawyers — not too far above $100 per hour — means that the PPSC “gets pretty good value for its dollar.”
Coming in at $190 million last year, and considering the tens of millions in seizures it reaps in, the PPSC is a pretty lean ship