The Proceeds Of Crime Act, which enables the Crown Office to seize money, goods and property earned illegally, has been a great success since it was passed in 2002.
Many millions of pounds have been collected over the past 12 years and passed on to good causes. Soon, the police will also be allowed to put some of the money seized from criminals back into policing.
Even before Sir Stephen House, Scotland's chief constable, campaigned for his force to be allowed to spend some of the cash, the principle of the Act was sound. Not only does confiscating ill-gotten gains hit criminals where they feel it most, in the pocket, it also provides a certain amount of restitution to the communities they have blighted. In the words of Sir Stephen: why keep taxing law-abiding people when we could be taxing criminals?
The Act has also been largely effective. By the end of April last year, more than £80 million had been collected and, last month, as part of increasing international efforts by the police, an entire cul-de-sac of villas in Spain was seized. It is the kind of operation that has the potential to disrupt organised crime networks and the cash flow they require to operate.
However, as the most recent annual report of the Civil Recovery Unit demonstrates, it is not just the Mr Bigs dealing in millions of pounds whom the legislation targets. In one case included in the report, that of Ronald Wright, the amount seized was £2000 on the basis it was likely to be used for drug dealing. The legislation allows cash to be seized if there is a suspicion it has arisen from unlawful activity or if there is an intention that it will be used on illegal purposes.
The amount involved in this case might seem relatively small compared to the millions of pounds sometimes confiscated but drug dealing, even at relatively small, local level, can disrupt communities, create addiction and lead to family breakdown. It is right the proceeds of crime, big and small, are pursued.
Of course, the claims and counter-claims over where the money has come from have to be carefully tested before it is confiscated. In the case of Ronald Wright, for example, he claimed he had inherited the £2000 from his mother and it was later proved he had indeed received an inheritance from her, although in the end it was judged likely the money would be used in drug dealing.
The good news is that £2000 that could have ended up in a drug dealer's account will be part of the pot of money spent on good causes. Not only does the confiscation have the potential to disrupt and prevent further crime, it is also likely to benefit the very disadvantaged communities that suffer most from drug dealing.
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