A modern day witch hunt: how unexplained wealth laws victimise the innocent

Pictured: how unexplained wealth laws combat organised crime

Pictured: how unexplained wealth laws combat organised crime

We like to think of ourselves as superior to our ancestors, but as I look at Australia’s unexplained wealth laws I venture to disagree.  The laws have empowered police to confiscate the property of the innocent without a trial, and they have been introduced in every State, every Territory and federally. Indeed, in New South Wales, the Coalition is promising to increase their scope in the run up to the election. Punishment without a trial is a process that is equivalent to a medieval witch hunt.

All of your property—gone. Unexplained wealth laws empower law enforcement officials to permanently confiscate your property without being convicted of a crime. If you’re suspected of committing a minor criminal offence, the police are empowered to confiscate everything you own. In Queensland, it can be as trivial as recreational marijuana possession. There is no need to even accuse you of having committed a crime in obtaining the property; no need to charge you with a crime; no need to bring your trial; and no need to prove you guilty. Punishment without a trial or due process is the agenda. It’s up to you to defend yourself in Court against the allegation that you obtained the property unlawfully.

Absurd law, absurd results. In one instance, recreational marijuana possession was in fact used as the pretext for the confiscation by police of almost $600,000.00 of cash belonging to one man, Mr Henderson, and his siblings in 2002. [1] Mr Henderson proved in Court that he obtained that money legitimately from the sale of a family heirloom belonging to himself and his siblings. But the money was confiscated anyway, for the absurd reason that he could not prove that the family heirloom was legally acquired by his now-dead parents. Police did not offer any other explanation as to how the property was acquired. They did not produce a victim claiming the heirloom was his, or even a police report. They did not allege that Mr Henderson or his property acquired the property illegally. They weren’t required to. Mr Henderson was a member of the vulnerable underclass which unexplained wealth laws seem to target and victimise.

That money sure looks suspicious. Unexplained wealth laws also empower the police to permanently confiscate specific items of your property on the suspicion that it was acquired illegally. Again, the onus is on you to get it back.

Carrying cash is a crime? Thus in another case in Western Australia, police targeted a man, Mr Morris, for carrying around his life savings of over $100,000.00 in cash in a plastic bag.[2] It was suspicious. So when police pulled him over while he was driving back in 2011, they took the cash. He kept his savings in cash because he was suspicious of banks; he had lost his meagre savings due to a bank failure in the 80’s. He was planning to use the money purchase and open a fitness training centre. Police did not allege that the man had committed a crime of any kind. They simply suggested that he had obtained the bag of money from a friend. This single suggestion was the entirety of the prosecution case. Mind, they had no proof of it. No witness came to the stand in their favour. Nor did they offer any evidence the man’s friend had gotten the money illegally.  Mr Morris got his money back, but the case took two years to be disposed of—a punishment in time and money in and of itself. If Mr Morris had been subjected to the traditional process of criminal procedure, this would never have happened at all. The police could not and did not charge him with the “crime” of carrying around a bag of money. But with unexplained wealth laws, they confiscated it anyway. This is not justice.

No evidence of effectiveness. Witch hunters could only practise their trade because witchcraft was popularly thought to be real and dangerous. Similarly, our modern day law enforcement officials confiscate on the premise that they are combating organised crime. The dangers of organised crime are no superstition, of course. But then again, neither were the diseases witches pretended to cure. And much as peasants never asked witch hunters for evidence, few people seem to ask for any evidence that these laws do anything to combat organised crime. There’s a reason for that. There is none. Unexplained wealth laws are designed to catch people who haven’t been proven guilty of a crime. That does nothing to assist police in their investigation of actual crimes.

A wider net catches more innocent people. It is more likely than not that some of the people caught by police will be innocent. Some indeed might be guilty of something, but if they are subject to unexplained wealth laws then we often cannot be sure what they are guilty of, if anything. With unexplained wealth orders, there need be no convictions or sentences, nor even any reported crimes to justify a confiscation. The accused and the prosecution can simply consent to an order being made against the accused for his property to be confiscated. Nobody knows what they are accused of or whether the punishment is in proportion to the crime.

Disproportionate, draconian punishments. We should not assume that the punishment is just simply because the accused did not contest it. The accused may not have had the funds or the time to contest the accusations against him. While he may have been guilty of some offence that might justify confiscating the proceeds of crime, it does not follow that law enforcement officials should be empowered to take everything that person owns. The punishment has to match the crime. The typical punishment for a marijuana user is a counselling session or a small fine—not the confiscation of all of their property.

A pointless, hysterical distraction from punishing real criminals. Finger pointing hysteria may sweep up a lot of innocent people together with the guilty. But there’s no evidence that organised crime is likely to suffer as a result. Indeed, unexplained wealth proceedings will distract police from the actual task of investigating real crimes and real criminals. They will be too busy investigating loosely hypothetical possibilities that might warrant a confiscation order to worry about any real criminals. Therein, I suspect, lies the appeal. Police and politicians can look like they are doing something about crime without doing much at all.

Reversing the presumption of innocence undermines our liberal society. The Coalition like to market themselves as tough on crime, but unexplained wealth laws punish suspects, not proven criminals. Punishing suspects means punishing more innocent people. The traditional, conservative view of law enforcement sees the presumption of innocence as the cornerstone and a distinguishing feature of the English legal system. It is as old as the English Treaty of Magna Carta:

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.

Or as famous English jurist Sir William Blackstone put it:

“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

People must have confidence that the legal system will not unfairly target or persecute them. With the introduction of unexplained wealth laws, the Coalition, the ALP and the Greens have renounced their commitment to this fundamental principle of liberal society. They have undermined a core, embedded principle of our legal system and our society. This is a remarkable and troubling tri-partisan consensus indeed. The only politician to have spoken against these laws to date is David Leyonjhelm of the Liberal Democrats. Leyonjhelm has separately pointed out that reversing the presumption of innocence is tantamount to accepting the “just world fallacy”:

The just-world fallacy holds that a person’s actions always result in fair and fit consequences, and it exists because people are uncomfortable accepting [that] suffering is random and that sometimes bad things happen for no reason at all. It is common to believe people must have done something to deserve what they get, including being accused of a crime. The argument goes: if bad things only happen to those who deserve them and I am a good person, then I can be sure nothing bad will ever happen to me.”

Unfortunately, the world is not fair, and law enforcement officials are not perfect. They are fallible human beings. They are capable of making mistakes. They are capable of persecution, not merely prosecution. Judging people guilty before proven innocent is tantamount to a sacrilegious worship of law enforcement officials as nigh-infallible human beings. Unexplained wealth laws turn them into the witch finders of our modern day witch hunts.

Revenue raising gone mad. Add to the mix the fact that confiscations generate revenue for the government and you will see a dangerous combination at work. Police who return more money towards government coffers than they put in will naturally be in line for more funding. Politicians will be more inclined to give it to them. It is not hard to see how law enforcement officials might be more inclined to prosecute law abiding citizens when their pay packet is on the line. That’s the experience in the United States, at any rate, where law enforcement officials get every penny they confiscate back into their own local police department. Then they spend it on holidays, nice cars and other like perks, as the Institute for Justice, an American civil liberties law firm, has recorded. If law enforcement officials get their way we could witness much the same here. It is a comfortable revenue stream indeed.

Would you do it to your neighbour? A final thought. If you took your neighbour’s property and refused to return it to him, without even telling him why or caring to prove that he acquired the property illegally, what would that make you? A thief. It’s one thing to confiscate the proven proceeds of crime, but unexplained wealth laws are something else entirely.

Vladimir Vinokurov is a solicitor and a deputy Victorian State director of the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance. The views expressed here are his own.

Vladimir Vinokurov is a solicitor and a deputy Victorian State director of the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance. The views expressed here are his own.

[1] See Henderson v Queensland [2014] HCA 52.

[2] See Director of Public Prosecutions v Morris [2010] WADC 148. (Note: you will need access to a subscription service such as LexisNexis to access this decision).