Trinidad And Tobago's 'You Can't Afford That' Forfeiture Law Claims Its First Victims
from the government-is-just-another-word-for-the-people-telling-you-what-you-can-afford dept
Here in the United States, asset forfeiture is pretty straightforward. In civil asset forfeiture, the government decides it wants something you have and files the paperwork to take it. In criminal asset forfeiture, the government takes your stuff pre-trial to prevent you from mounting a decent defense and finalizes the transfer of wealth post-conviction.
In both cases, the government takes stuff before anything’s been proven in court. Only in criminal asset forfeiture does the government have to do much work convincing a judge it should have your property instead of you.
Legalized theft in the United States is scary, abusive, and the target of much criticism. It’s a one-sided process that favors the accusers.
But at least you still get to keep the clothes you’re wearing, unlike in the Netherlands. Dutch police are willing to disrobe anyone they suspect can’t afford (at least not with legally-obtained funds) the clothes on their backs, the watches on their wrists, and any other accoutrements cops think a person couldn’t have purchased without ill-gotten gains.
Meanwhile, the UK government allows law enforcement to secure “unexplained wealth orders,” which allows them to seize anything someone can’t produce receipts for. To move forward with these orders, there has to be at least some articulable suspicion the wealth may have been derived from a serious criminal act. The downside is the power has also been granted to tax collection authorities, which turns less-serious crimes like owing back taxes into “serious” crimes since it’s subject to the same legalized theft program. No convictions need to be secured before the government can start taking stuff away from people. And the burden of proof rests almost entirely on the person whose property is being taken.
It appears Trinidad and Tobago has instituted the same sort of government-enabled theft program. And it actually beat the Brits to it by a couple of months. The islands’ “explain your wealth” law went into effect in April of this year, but it took until December for anyone to take it out for a test drive.
The law allows law enforcement to freeze/seize assets, utilizing either restriction or forfeiture orders. The process starts with the filing of a request by law enforcement or revenue officers. All the government needs to do is tell the court it suspects the wealth is unexplained. The burden of proof is on the accused.
Where the High Court “is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the total wealth of the respondent exceeds the value of his wealth that was lawfully obtained, it may make a Preliminary Unexplained Wealth Order, requiring the respondent to file a declaration and appear before the High Court to answer questions relative to his assets for the High Court to decide whether to make an Unexplained Wealth Order.”
After this, a notice of the making of the Order shall be served on the respondent.
Here’s who the government is going after with its first “unexplained wealth order.”
A St Helena couple has 28 days to explain their wealth after a High Court judge granted the police an order under new legislation.
Justice Carla Brown-Antoine granted the order on Monday after finding the police had presented enough evidence to justify it.
The order was granted ex-parte.
Under the judge’s orders, the two are each to file a declaration under sections 58(1) and 61(1)of the Civil Asset Recovery and Management and Unexplained Wealth Act within 28 days, and are to appear in court on January 7.
There are few details on who this couple is or why they’re suspected of having too much stuff. But it could be anybody, really. The Attorney General of Trinidad and Tobago says the law will be used to go after “bandits who wear gold chains and drive Mercedes Benz and BMWs.” Looking for gold and imported cars casts a pretty wide net. There’s really no downside for the government since citizens will have to do all the evidentiary heavy lifting.
Oh, and the AG tossed out this horseshit chestnut while arguing on behalf of giving law enforcement the power to strip people of their possessions without having to prove any connection to criminal activity:
If innocent citizens have nothing to fear or hide, the Civil Asset Recovery Unexplained Wealth Bill should not scare them.
This was the message Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi sent to the population in Parliament yesterday, as he read out the 75-clause bill which seeks to create a civil asset recovery and management agency for the recovery of criminal property through restrictions in dealing with civil assets restriction, forfeiture of criminal property and the management of criminal property.
Yeah, but the government decides who’s innocent. It makes the first judgment call when it requests an order. Then a judge decides whether or not those accused of having too much money can explain why they have the things they have. If the explanations aren’t good enough, the government gets to keep the stuff it’s seized and the question of innocence (in terms of criminal accusations) goes completely unaddressed.
The forfeiture system in the United States has plenty of perverse incentives. The one in place in Trinidad and Tobago is pretty much nothing but perverse incentives — a simple way for the government to deprive people of their property with only the thinnest pretense of due process.