When it comes to championing constitutional rights, the Hells Angels don’t generally come to mind. But the notorious biker club is embracing that cause through a challenge it launched last week against British Columbia’s Civil Forfeiture Act in the B.C. Supreme Court. The suit follows the seizure of three of the group’s clubhouses, alleged sites of drug trafficking, extortion and murder, according to the province.
Adopted in 2005, civil forfeiture allows the province to go after any assets it believes are linked to criminal activity, such as a marijuana grow-operation or cash earned by drug trafficking. The province, which has seized $40 million in forfeitures to date, claims the law deters crime. But civil rights advocates, and now the Hells Angels, say it’s a cash grab, and a means of bypassing due process. “It’s really an end run around checks and balances in the criminal process,” says Michael Vonn, policy director at the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
The Angels, the group’s lawyer argues, is not a proven criminal organization, therefore, forfeiture of its properties in east Vancouver, Kelowna and Nanaimo is a violation of its Charter rights. It’s a battle others in similar situations can’t afford to take on, says Vonn, noting the minimum cost to defend a civil claim is tens of thousands of dollars. Because of this, she says, many on the receiving end of forfeiture claims end up settling. The Civil Liberties Association also questions whether penalties administered through forfeiture fit the corresponding crimes. While originally meant as a tool to target organized crime, regular folk have had their homes liquidated for housing a handful of marijuana plants, or their cars seized for speeding, says Vonn.
And so now, we have the bizarre spectacle of the well-funded Hells Angels as constitutional defenders. “Most people seem to just cave when faced with these forfeiture lawsuits. It is just too expensive and stressful to fight back when faced with the resources of the state,” Rick Ciarniello, president of the Vancouver Hells Angels chapter told media. “We aren’t going to do that, and our fight will be for all British Columbians.”