Hitting criminals in their pockets
Crooked politicians and organised criminals can be stopped if the law hits them where it hurts the most—in their pockets.
Attorney David West, an expert in the field of extradition and money-laundering laws, believes a single piece of legislation can make a significant dent in the pockets of drug and gun dealers and can also put the brakes on politicians, who often seek to hide their ill-gotten gains in the names of relatives and friends.
West is urging the Government, if it is serious about fighting crime, to introduce a piece of legislation called the “Civil Assets Forfeiture”, which is a form of confiscation of assets by the State.
Speaking with the Sunday Express at his office, at El Dorado Chambers, St Vincent Street, Port of Spain last week, West explained that the Proceeds of Crime Act is limited and should be amended by a simple majority to allow for the seizure of illegal assets even if a “suspect” has not been convicted of a criminal offence.
“We have in Trinidad and Tobago the Proceeds of Crime Act, which allows for the confiscation or seizure of assets by the State, once a person has a conviction. But with this new law, once you have cause to suspect that somebody has assets or property illegally got, you can seize it, through a disclosure order which you can apply for through the courts,” he said.
“This applies not only to gang lords, but politicians, or whoever you may suspect of having questionable properties or assets. The beauty about this is that it is a civil proceeding, so the State brings proceedings against the property rather than against the individual,” West explained.
He said Caribbean neighbours Jamaica, St Vincent, Dominica, Antigua/Barbuda, as well as international partners Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States of America already have such legislation in place.
Barbados’ Cabinet is currently looking at taking such legislation to the Parliament, said West.
In May 2013, Dominica amended its laws to allow authorities the power to use civil forfeiture of assets, which was applauded by US Ambassador to that island, Larry Palmer, for being the first country in the Eastern Caribbean to pass civil asset laws.
“It does not need a constitutional majority because it is against property and not against persons,” West explained, adding that “the Financial Action Task Force, (FATF) in its 40 recommendations, passed on February 12, 2012, recommended that countries consider adopting measures that allow such proceeds or instrumentalities to be confiscated without requiring a criminal conviction”.
According to West, “This law is necessary because what it does is to ensure that the ill-gotten money is not used to facilitate gang violence and white colour crime in Trinidad. What happens is that the criminals buy weapons, vehicles, etc, so what this law does, it allows the police or DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) to see that some individuals have assets that are not conforming with their financial abilities or financial profiles and, based on that, you obtain an order from the courts to confiscate the assets.“
West conceded that the legal system was challenged with lengthy delays and what obtains currently is the police must wait until a person is convicted (which could take years) before being able to confiscate any assets.
“So this is a quick, efficient and effective method to seize somebody’s assets to take them out of the system and attack their proceeds of crime. If Government is serious about fighting crime, this is the best method in the short term for them to arrest the crime situation. I have personally spoken with the Minister of National Security Gary Griffith about this and he is in favour of this type of legislation being brought before Parliament. This is an excellent method of taking away the assets from gangs.“
West said there is no doubt that organised crime was thriving in this country.
“The movement of drugs and quantity of drugs being located in T&T is not by any one person but organised group of persons controlling a drug system. That’s why we have (US) Drug Enforcement Agents (DEA) in Trinidad, they are not here because they want a holiday but because they are trying to prevent that activity reaching the US.”
West concurred: “Any government that does not implement or bring to Parliament this bit of legislation is not serious about fighting crime in Trinidad.”
He added that the movement of money out of the country and the questionable purchasing of properties would be covered under this legislation.
“It will be a complete tightening...and as I explained it is under the civil system, so it would be a quicker method to dealing with crime. Without it we would be swimming against the tide. With this piece of legislation, it is a different ball game. Not only that, but this is also self-sustaining, in that the assets seized can be used in the very same fight against crime. Vehicles, money, property—all of that can be used to fight crime.”
West, former interim head of the Financial Intelligence Unit of Trinidad and Tobago (FIUTT) and ex-head of the Central Authority for Extradition and Mutual Assistance in the Office of the Attorney General, believes this legislation will make it difficult for corrupt persons or criminals to hide.
He warned: “In the world today, you cannot be corrupt, it will be traced back to you. Once you have a thorough investigation you will be detected.”