Peter Ameerali has been working to seize property used in the B.C. pot trade for four years, an increasingly complex cat-and-mouse game.
Buying a former grow-op can lead to big savings for prospective homeowners as well as big profits for the B.C. government, which is tasked with reselling crime- connected homes seized through the courts. But civil forfeiture is not as simple as it seems.
The house looks out from a hillside some 30 metres up from the Strait of Georgia. From either of the home’s two decks, you can gaze past a sand-and-pebble beach, over rippling tides and out toward the green southern tip of Gambier Island. Beyond that emerge the peaks of the Lions and Cypress Mountain. It’s a million-dollar view, which cost my husband and me much less than that in money but a lot in stress. We had first viewed the home in summer 2008 and loved its open plan, string of water-view windows and seclusion in a forested cove. But we couldn’t afford the $700,000 price. After two years and another owner, the house popped up again on the listings at two-thirds of that amount, and we jumped at it. The reason it was so cheap: it had become a grow-op, one of close to 60 crime-connected houses that were seized and sold in the past year through the dogged work of Peter Ameerali, counsel for the province’s director of civil forfeiture.
Ameerali, charged with making sure the government makes money in its battle against B.C.’s illicit drug trade, is explaining how he got involved in confiscating grow-ops like the one I bought. He is sitting behind his cluttered, Sally Ann-style desk in a Victoria-area office. I have been barred by the Public Safety Ministry from revealing the exact address out of fear that organized crime may want to harm Ameerali. When I visit, not even the security guards at the building’s entry desk know his room number.
The young-looking 32-year-old, a graduate of the University of Victoria’s law school, says he took an interest in forfeiture issues in 2004 while working as an articling student in the Ministry of Attorney General’s civil litigation group. Ontario’s Civil Remedies Act had been in force for two years, and Manitoba was just enacting a forfeiture law. In September of that year, Ameerali became involved in drafting similar legislation for B.C. and continued working on it until after he passed his bar exams in May 2005. Once B.C.’s Civil Forfeiture Act became law a year later, Gordon Houston, manager of the Ministry of Attorney General’s civil litigation department, asked Ameerali to handle all forfeitures. In short, Ameerali became the lawyer responsible for getting property seized through the courts. Since then the forfeiture office has expanded to five full-time and four part-time lawyers. As the office’s longest-serving counsel, Ameerali has litigated more grow-op confiscations than any other lawyer in B.C.
His work has included winning a groundbreaking case in which the court forced a dentist to give dental records to the prosecution, dealing with the seizure of the Hell’s Angels clubhouse in Nanaimo, and driving the confiscation of grow-ops as remote as a twice-busted, A-frame house in the woods near Likely, B.C. And Ameerali’s forfeiture work has yielded measurable results: from May 2006 to October 2010, the province sold 75 seized grow-ops. In every instance, the province made money.
The civil forfeiture office has completed $12-million worth of confiscations in the past four years, including seizures of grow homes, drug labs, drug-selling houses, cars, boats, farms, storehouses for stolen property, lairs for many other crimes and hoards of cash. After operational costs, the B.C. government has netted $2 million from that take, with most of the proceeds going out as grants to victims services, crime remediation and crime-stopping measures such as the Con Air program that flies captured criminals back to their home province. The value of forfeited homes has ranged from a few hundred thousand to $1.3 million, but mortgages have to be paid out, and $2 million to $3 million per year has gone into the typically prolonged litigations.
B.C. is not alone in its approach to civil forfeitures. Australia has seized criminal property since 1987. The United States inherited the practice as common law from colonial England and enacted modern forfeiture legislation in 1984. Today the U.S. Treasury and Justice departments together receive about $1 billion per year from property seizures. In Canada forfeiture legislation has been enacted in Ontario, B.C., Saskatchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, Nova Scotia and most recently in New Brunswick. During the last seven years, Ontario seized almost $13 million in property and another $40.7 million awaits resolution in Ontario courts. B.C. runs a close second in the country, with more than 150 property seizures, valued at $30 million to $40 million, currently awaiting resolution.
Of the B.C. forfeitures, Ameerali estimates, about 65 per cent are drug related, and 90 per cent of those are grow-ops. To clear the backlog of files, Ameerali and his team negotiate. Most grow-house owners agree to sign away all or some of the property, and then it gets sold. In the case of our home, 30 per cent of what we paid minus realty fees and related expenses went to the grow-op owners. Usually, the government gets “the lion’s share” of proceeds, Ameerali says.
Richmond RCMP seize close to a million
dollars' worth of marijuana and grow-op
equipment from seven separate units in
a Richmond townhouse complex.
Unlike federal law, which ties property seizures to punishment for a crime, B.C.’s forfeitures are civil actions based on criminal activity associated with anyone’s property. The actual owner doesn’t need to be criminally charged. The civil route is the more frequent forfeiture action because proof beyond a reasonable doubt, the key to winning a criminal trial, is hard to establish. In the case of my home, Ameerali explains, the actual pot growers were hard to identify because they were rarely on the premises. Most of the operation – grow lights, humidifiers and venting equipment – was automated. But at least three of my neighbours knew something was going on. They said they could smell the scent of B.C. bud wafting down the hillside.
But grow-home owners almost always claim to be unknowing landlords, Ameerali says, adding that out of 200 cases he’s handled, he personally believes there is an innocent landlord less than three per cent of the time. Defense attorney Patrick McGowan disagrees. “There’s no question that there are innocent landlords that get caught up in this,” says the associate counsel for Vancouver law firm Ritchie Sandford. McGowan, who has gone head to head with Ameerali on several complex seizures, refuses to state the proportion of grow-property owners he believes have been unjustly harmed by the Civil Forfeiture Act, but he suggests they comprise way beyond three per cent. McGowan also argues that owners of pot-tainted homes usually suffer huge legal costs. Even if they successfully fight confiscation, their banker may become nervous and call in their mortgage before they can sell the property. If they manage to keep the home, he adds, “the owner is going to get stuck with immensely significant expenses associated with tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes more, to bring the property back to the state where they can get an occupancy permit.”
Buyers of grow-ops face huge expenses too. Estimates from contractors to eradicate the mould in our house ran as high as $80,000. But thanks to the Louisiana government, which produced remediation videos for poor, mould-stricken victims of Hurricane Katrina, my husband and I economized with the do-it-yourself approach. First, we hired our friends’ college-age son and his buddy to do some of the dirty work. Donning head-to-toe anti-contamination suits, goggles and dual-filter respirators, the pair worked their way through each of our plastic-sealed rooms, blasting a chemical fog from an anti-mould machine, slashing away mould-damaged plasterboard and sucking up contaminated particles with a hepa vacuum as they went. Then we had to get the electrical circuits – which the police ripped out – working again; bring in a structural engineer; trash all the smelly rugs and lino; invest in new, non-stench-emitting appliances; get the water and gas lines tested; and have an environmental scientist set up a lab in our basement to test the air.
Do-it-yourself would also describe Ameerali’s strategies with property seizures. As the office’s seasoned legal hand, he accepts the most difficult cases and invents ways to deal with ever-craftier adversaries. Grow-op owners have been changing their tactics, he says, as was evident with my house. Just days after my husband and I removed all subjects from the purchase, Ameerali called saying the owners were appealing the sale (a B.C. first, he later told me). They had already signed away most of the proceeds but alleged we weren’t paying enough. Homebuyer elation turned into stressed-out deflation as I considered how to explain to a judge why my purchase price should stand, how the house was barely worth our accepted offer. But just days before the hearing, Ameerali produced an affidavit stating the house was an appalling mess and smelled so bad it was literally making those who entered sick, our realtor included. The grow-owners promptly withdrew their objection to the sale.
Another grow-owner evasion tactic is to try to sell or transfer property before the province can get hold of it, Ameerali says. In response, he has been racing to catch up with transfer documents and has been arguing in court that transfers should be stopped. In one such case, Ameerali says, a gift of “love and affection and a dollar” from Berge Georges Artinian was actually a way to evade confiscation of his four-hectare farm in Abbotsford, where a grow-op was found. Artinian, who is facing charges relating to the marijuana, tried to give half of the property to a female relative on Sept. 24, 2010, three days before it was busted. “Maybe it was a coincidence, but I don’t really believe in coincidence,” Ameerali says, noting that police had spent days staking out the premises before finding 156 marijuana plants under a trap door in a barn.
Ameerali then appeared in the downtown Vancouver courthouse and asked B.C. Supreme Court Justice Barry Davies to seize $191,950 in cash found in a bedroom closet and to block or reverse the “love” transfer. The judge approved the order to hold both the cash and the property.
Beyond acting against grow-op owners in court, Ameerali has to face a real personal security risk, given the criminal element he deals with. He confirms that he works under tight security that includes secret “special protection equipment.” But he adds that he probably doesn’t need it. Big-time pot cultivators see property seizures as a cost of doing business, he says, with losses from the occasional bust already factored in: “I’m just a cog in the machine they have to work with.”
Still, there’s little doubt that serious money is on the line with each bust. Nobody can pinpoint the precise number of grow-ops in this province, “but 10,000 to 15,000 is a really good estimate,” says Surrey fire chief Len Garis, who teaches criminology at the University of the Fraser Valley and has researched grow-ops for both of his employers. According to the Civil Forfeiture Office, an expert grower in B.C. can harvest four crops a year at about $1,000 per plant. That adds up to a potential of more than $5 million annually for the people who grew 1,300 plants in my home – and suggests that, with just over $12 million in seizures completed in half a decade’s work, Ameerali is far from declaring victory in the war against pot growers. But he continues on, confident that each forfeiture represents an important win along the road.
As for my husband and me, we are finally settled into our home and content to stay put for a while. We may have to: the B.C. Real Estate Association requires that all sellers of former grow-ops disclose their property’s shady past, which could deter future buyers. Yet after two months of exhausting restorations, the property is now comfortable and clean. And the only thing that can be smelled from our deck is the faint salty scent of the ocean, for which both we and our neighbours are very grateful.