Clever! How Cops Use Civil Forfeiture to Keep The Public In The Dark About Surveillance
Nathan Munn reports at Motherboard:
Police across Canada are using civil forfeiture laws to seize everything from houses and cars to small amounts of cash from people who sometimes haven’t been convicted of a crime. Some of this money is paying for cutting-edge surveillance equipment, a practice that critics say keeps the public in the dark about police capabilities.
“We are very suspect about what is being purchased [with forfeiture funds],” said Micheal Vonn, policy director for the BC Civil Liberties Association, in an interview. “We have very little public insight into the kinds of equipment that police are using.”
Police grants funded by forfeiture dollars are doled out separately from public policing budgets and awarded directly by forfeiture offices or provincial ministries. The grant process is subject to less public scrutiny than the tabling of a municipal policing budget. As a result, Vonn said, there is greater potential for law enforcement to acquire and use equipment that could infringe on fundamental freedoms.
“When you add in what is essentially dual book-keeping, where [purchases] are kept even more off-the record than in the current system, you have a potential for secretly acquired equipment that [isn’t] vetted for privacy implications,” Vonn said.
While some civil forfeiture funds are spent on programs for at-risk youth and other community outreach initiatives, documents show that a portion of the funds go towards buying surveillance equipment for police.
In British Columbia, past Freedom of Information requests have revealed that dozens of grants awarded to police by the Civil Forfeiture Office paid for Cellebrite phone extractors, GPS tracking systems for vehicles and long-distance surveillance equipment. Police in the small BC city of Abbotsford received a $9,985 civil forfeiture-funded grant in 2014 for a “portable mobile surveillance system,” the capabilities of which aren’t known because the grant document does not describe the device in greater detail.
In Manitoba, the Winnipeg Police Service used $365,000 in civil forfeiture grants to purchase . . .