USA CIVIL FORFEITURE LAWS EXTENDED TO ENGLAND IN LANDMARK CASE !
by Dr. John Abaci, United Kingdom (Dec. 12, 1996)
The English High Court has just ruled that a USA civil forfeiture order can be registered and enforced in England even though the owner of the property was never allowed a proper chance to rebut the evidence (case called 'DTOA 126 of 1990 Re: F' judgment given on 29 November 1996). The judgment makes it clear that, where the USA government has alleged that the 'real' owner of the property is some semi-mythical drug dealer, the innocent owner of the property is left out in the cold with no rights at all.
The High Court says only the 'real' owner has the right to come forward to claim the property and the 'real' owner is the person the USA court says it is. Of course, the USA court simply accepted the allegations of a USA customs agent and did not look into the underlying evidence at all. The innocent owner was never allowed to contest the USA ruling because it was held not to have 'standing' to do so. Why didn't it have standing? Because it was not the 'real' owner! This round-about argument was swallowed hook line and sinker in England.
Although the English have a theoretical discretion not to register a USA forfeiture, it is clear from the judgment that this could not ever apply where the supposed 'real' owner does not come forward (he won't, of course, because if he does exist he is a fugitive and has no interest in the property anyway). Incidentally, the English swept away centuries of cases on private international law in order to let the might of the USA government prevail. What are the implications?
Ironically this is not bad news for drug dealers. If you are actually a drug dealer (I'm sure you're not, but humor me for a while), England seems to be a very friendly place to be. The law gives your property a lot of protection. You have to be convicted, die or abscond before they will take it off you. Even if you abscond they have to prove you derived it from drugs deals (you only have the onus if you're actually convicted). If you fight it, they will let you dig into your assets for your legal costs. If they say you are the 'real' owner of someone else's assets, they will even let you dig into those assets to fight your case !!! What more could you want! If you are a drug dealer, I don't care much for you at all. But I have to admit that you could do worse than take your assets to England. It's not too bad an environment for drug dealers and their ill gotten gains. Maybe, after the case of 'Re:F', London should specialize as the world center for the assets of drug dealers (that is, if it does not already do so)!
However, I am more concerned about the plight of innocent owners of property located in England. I have always had this old-fashioned notion that the vast majority of people are innocent and should be considered so until proven guilty. Also, that if you hold a piece of property in your name, you should be entitled to be treated as the owner until someone comes along with some evidence which shows that you are not the owner. If you are an innocent owner of English property you had better not earn the political disapproval of your government (if you live in the USA or any other country 'designated' by England) and you had better not do anything silly like die leaving your assets to children who are not ready for legal battles. If you do, your English assets (including shares on London registers!) are sitting ducks for confiscation. Any captured drug dealer who knows about the vulnerability of your assets can give them away to the USA government (and perhaps get a share for himself) by claiming them for himself or by 'confessing' that you (or your company) are just a front for some semi-mythical drug-dealing associate or competitor of his. You won't have any right to contest what happens because you won't be the 'real' owner in the eyes of the USA and English courts. The drug dealer will have the additional pleasure of creating havoc with justice and quite probably resorting to your assets to pay his legal expenses (that is, before they are confiscated altogether)!
My personal conclusions
I suppose I should keep quiet about these things. Any talk about drugs these days seems to be taboo unless you are saying the government should have more powers to combat it. If only that worked, but it does not.
When governments conspire with drug dealers to confiscate the assets of innocent people, I start to become a little bit suspicious about where current policies are going. When the drug trade seems to be getting worse rather than better each time governments remove more freedoms from the innocent, I become more suspicious about what is going on. As much as I hate the drugs trade, I also hate witch hunts ('Don't give them a trial, they will have time to put a spell on the court!'). What I most fear is that the actions of governments will become so oppressive to innocent people that the bulk of innocent humanity will start to see drugs barons as a lesser evil than governments. Drugs barons will be just as ruthless but they will adapt to the new circumstances to become relatively acceptable feudal overlords. That is merely a return to the political mores of 800 years ago. Do we really want that? Is it not better to take more care to protect the innocent from the excesses of the so-called War on Drugs?
[ . . . for more information , read the opinion in the case Re: F. ]