Civil Forfeiture & Freedom of Information

Civil forfeiture authorities have shown a disturbing tendency towards secrecy, failing to disclose organizational details or even the names of employees unless compelled to do so by the courts.

On October 16, 2012, British Columbia’s Ministry of Citizens’ Services and Open Government refused to disclose the name and professional background of the Director of Civil Forfeiture, the names and titles of the Civil Forfeiture Office’s other personnel, and the organizational structure of the Office itself.

This refusal to disclose demonstrated a startling lack of transparency for an office which initiates punitive court proceedings against hundreds of British Columbians each year. The presumption that CFO employees should serve anonymously raises serious questions about the right to face one’s accuser.

After interest from the media, the Ministry of the Attorney General (of which the Civil Forfeiture Office is a part) agreed to release the name of the Director of Civil Forfeiture. A few days later, the Ministry announced that the individual in question had resigned and been replaced by a new Acting Director. The new Acting Director’s identity was kept secret by the Ministry for a further seven months. The professional background of the present Director of Civil Forfeiture, Phil Tawtel, remains a secret to this day.

On July 23, 2014, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner ordered the Civil Forfeiture Office to disclose the names of its employees to the public. On April 23, 2015, the Commissioner’s order was upheld by Mr. Justice MacKenzie of the BC Supreme Court in British Columbia (Ministry of Justice) v. Maddock, 2015 BCSC 746. On May 12, 2015, the Ministry of Justice complied with the Commissioner’s order and released the Civil Forfeiture Office personnel list.

Conversely in Alberta, the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner permitted civil forfeiture officials to serve anonymously, giving only “general reasons” for this finding on the basis that “much of the Public Body’s submissions were made in camera.” The Adjudicator noted that “these employees would have knowledge that could likely be of value to an individual attempting to regain seized property,” but failed to specify what this knowledge might be.

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