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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 23rd year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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State endorsed theft or justice?

13 March 2017

Sometimes it seems that the courts of the nation are powerless to dish out real justice to those who would break the law and steal the property or lives of others.

When severe assaults that leave the victim scarred for the rest of their lives, both physically and mentally, often result in mere token sentences measured in months or just a handful of years, it's sometimes hard to believe that there's any justice at all.

However, I can't also help but marvel at how the courts swing so wildly in the other direction -- but only when crimes of property are involved.

I'm talking about the hugely "over the top" way in which The Proceeds of Crime Act is applied to extract penalties which are sometimes worth an order or magnitude or more than the crime itself.

This story in the NZH which was published on the weekend cites some interesting examples.

And, in the UK, it seems that police using similar legislation want an even bigger slice of the pie that is created when the proceeds of crime are sold off at auction.

Ah, I remember a time when people were presumed innocent until proven guilty -- but now it's up to the accused to prove their innocence or lose all their worldly possessions for what might be a relatively trivial transgression.

Now I'm not saying that people who deal in drugs or stolen property should get off without risking the loss of assets that may have been purchased with the proceeds. However, I am suggesting that the penalty must fit the crime and from what I've read over the years, this is increasingly less likely to be the case.

The wicked thing about this legislation is that you don't have to be found guilty in a court to have your assets seized and sold. In fact, you don't even have to be charged with a crime!

Believe it or not, all that's needed is for police to have a suspicion that you have benefited from the proceeds of crime and then it's up to you to prove you haven't.

Now, if you're the kind of person (and they do exist) who prefers to keep most of your money under the mattress and trade in cash, whilst still paying your fair share of tax, you may not be able to prove your innocence and that now appears to be a crime that could completely wipe you out financially.

Nowhere in law (that I know of) is it required that you keep receipts for purchases or give receipts for payments -- but if you don't, how can you prove your innocent if PC plod decides that you've been a naughty boy and therefore your house, car, boat and other assets must be forfeit and sold to enrich the crown's coffers?

The sad fact is that even if you are one of those meticulous people who document every aspect of their financial life, it will still be a time-consuming and expensive process to prove that all your worldly goods are the result of hard, honest graft. Why should anyone have to suffer such expense and inconvenience by way of proving their innocence when the police don't even have to lay a charge?

And let's face it, we all know that whilst the majority of our boys in blue are fine, upstanding lads who do things by the book, there are some (at all levels) who are prepared to falsify information and lie before a judge. In recent years we've seen a number of high profile cases where convictions have been overturned as a result of such dirty-dealing on the part of police being revealed. So what protection is there for hapless Kiwis who become a target of such vindictive attention when it is used to trigger seizure under the proceeds of crimes act?

None!

This really does start to sound like medieval England doesn't it?

Or is it just another subtle way that "the powers that be" want to crush a cash-economy and force people into "the system" so that their every purchase, sale, movement and utterance can be collected and stored for "later use"?

Okay, I admit -- now I'm bordering on conspiracy nuttiness -- but even once you scale this back a bit, how on earth can it be "just" for a government to seize someone's assets and sell them without even charging them with a crime?

Surely those accused must be able to respond with a defence of "What crime your honour?"

But they can't

Because they don't even have to be charged, they are being stripped of their assets for a crime that the crown doesn't even have to prove took place.

Now while the thought of people living the high life on the proceeds of crime simply because they've been smart enough to cover their arses is abhorrent to me -- but the thought of the police effectively having an unfettered power to nominate anyone as a "crook" and to be living off the proceeds of crime then stripping them of all their worldly goods is even worse.

But wait... this is an even more unfair situation than you might think.

If a person's assets are seized and sold, where does the money go?

Well it won't be going to victims because, since there may not have been any specific crime associated with the seizure, there is no victim to be identified. The money therefore, goes into the pot from whence comes MPs perks such as their superannuation, overseas travel, etc, etc. Are you getting the picture now?

And why the hell do we reserve this incredibly draconian punishment only for crimes of property? Why aren't those thugs who rape, assault and murder people stripped of their assets and have the proceeds given to their victims? Do we consider property to be of more importance than people's lives now?

I'd like to know what readers think?

Is this one of those outrageous over-reach situations which the average Kiwi doesn't care much about because they believe it won't affect them?

But what happens if you've got a lifestyle property and the cops find some dope growing in a bushy corner down the back. Can YOU prove that the money you've used to pay for your car, house, holidays and everything else you've bought in the past 10 years was not the proceeds of dope dealing?

I'm sorry but I've seen the whole concept of "justice" being flushed down the dunny in recent times. First the right to be presumed innocent was lost, then the PM (Helen Clark at the time) gave herself the right to designate any person or persons to be a "terrorist" without the right to a judicial review and now we have the police effectively having the right to strip the assets of anyone they might choose as a victim.

As I have said so often before -- if our grandfathers and great grandfathers could see just how easily we've given up the freedoms they risked their lives to preserve, they'd be spinning in their graves.

We should be ashamed.

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