B.C. Hells Angels have won a 13-year court battle against the provincial government over whether three of their clubhouses, in Vancouver, Kelowna and Nanaimo, should be forfeited as instruments of criminal activity.
B.C. Supreme Court Justice Barry Davies ruled Thursday that the director of civil forfeiture had not proven that the clubhouses “play an important role in enabling and empowering members of the Hells Angels to engage in serious crime for financial gain.”
He said the government agency had not provided enough evidence that the Angels were an international criminal network.
“The director has not proven that the Hells Angels is a worldwide criminal organization,” Davies said.
“Although the evidence adduced does establish that many members of the Hells Angels in British Columbia and Ontario have committed serious criminal offences, there is a paucity of admissible evidence concerning such criminals offending in other jurisdictions.”
Davies said that while the director presented evidence of crimes inside the Vancouver East End clubhouse in the mid-2000s, there was no proof that they were committed for the benefit of the Hells Angels as an organization.
He said there was no evidence presented at the year-long trial that the Nanaimo and Kelowna clubhouses had been used to commit crimes despite convictions of several members of each chapter.
The long-running civil case began in November 2007 when the RCMP raided the Nanaimo clubhouse. In 2012, the civil forfeiture case was expanded to include the Vancouver and Kelowna clubhouses.
The Hells Angels countersued the government, claiming the Civil Forfeiture Act is unconstitutional.
During the trial, Davies heard from police, former Toronto Hells Angel-turned-police agent Dave Atwell and Micheal Plante, who infiltrated the Angels for police in B.C.
B.C. Hells Angels Rick Ciarniello and Damiano Dipopolo took the stand for their club.
Davies found that Atwell was reliable in describing specific crimes of Hells Angels in Ontario. But he said he found “Atwell’s evidence concerning the involvement of Hells Angels clubhouses in relation to criminal conduct to be exaggerated, lacking in specificity and unreliable.”
Davies accepted the testimony of Plante about drug transactions and other crimes inside the clubhouse at 3598 East Georgia St. in Vancouver
“I have concluded that the director has proven on a balance of probabilities that the East End Clubhouse was, on some occasions between 2004 and early 2005, used by some Hells Angels members and associates in the commission of discrete unlawful acts,” Davies said.
But he said the criminal activity was not enough to warrant seizure of the three properties.
“I find that while it is possible that the East End clubhouse could again be so used by members or associates of the Hells Angels who have access to that clubhouse, that possibility does not establish a likelihood that the East End clubhouse or the Kelowna or Nanaimo Clubhouses will in future be used to engage in unlawful activity so as to require their forfeiture,” Davies said.
Davies also struck down part of the Civil Forfeiture Act that allows for property to be seized based on its possible future use for unlawful activity, saying the provision fell outside of provincial jurisdiction.
Phil Tawtel, the executive director of the Civil Forfeiture Office, said he couldn’t comment yet on the possibility of an appeal. “For now, the Civil Forfeiture Office and its counsel will take time to review the court’s findings. At this time, we cannot comment further, including with regard to potential next steps.”
Cianiello, who acts as a Hells Angels spokesman, did not respond to a request for comment.
The director of civil forfeiture provided the criminal records of 15 Hells Angels or associates linked to the three chapters for a myriad of offences, including manslaughter, trafficking, conspiracy to import cocaine, extortion, firearms offences and assault.
But Davies noted that “no convictions for criminal organization offences have been entered against any member or associate of the Hells Angels in British Columbia although such charges have been advanced by the Crown.
“The director has not proven that any offence committed by any of those members of the Hells Angels in British Columbia for which a conviction was entered was committed either at the direction of or for the benefit of a chapter of the Hells Angels or the Hells Angels as a worldwide criminal organization.”