Ireland: New laws to allow CAB to sell seized assets after just two years

- Wednesday, 17/04/2024, 09:48

Criminals will only have two years – reduced from the current seven – before an asset seized through the Criminal Assets Bureau can be sold off by the State under a proposed new law.

Ireland: New laws to allow CAB to sell seized assets after just two years
The Criminal Assets Bureau would be allowed sell seized property after just two years, rather than seven, under new laws. Stock Image. 

Criminals can currently continue to enjoy their property for seven years after it has been established that it was the proceeds of crime to allow time to appeal.

But proposed new legislation – the Proceeds of Crime (Amendment) Bill 2024 – would change that, reducing that period to two years.

Such changes would be “greatly improving the effectiveness of the overall scheme”, Detective Chief Superintendent Michael Gubbins of the CAB told the Oireachtas Justice Committee on Tuesday evening.

That time reduction, coupled with proposed new restrictions on why a disposal order on CAB-seized property can be opposed – will “reduce both duration and cost” to the scheme, he said.

CAB seized some €210m between 1996 and 2022.

But Kevin McMeel, Bureau Legal Officer with the CAB, said that the amount seized often represents a small fraction of the cost of that property to the criminal.

While CAB received some €250,000 for a house seized in Crumlin, the criminal had spent some €750,000 on renovations. So the loss to the criminal was some €1m but due to the notoriety attached to the property, the State could never recover the full funds spent on it, he said.

So the value of property to the criminal is often much higher than what is returned to the exchequer, he said.

And criminals have “caught onto CAB being there” with less drug dealers buying mansions in obvious locations in Ireland – much less than in 1996, 1997 and 1998, Mr McMeel said.

This, he hoped was “disrupting criminals" who can no longer live where they want to live but have to move to other countries to avoid the CAB. 

Mr McMeel also said that a majority of CAB cases now settle with the authority rather than contesting them through the courts.

Crypto currency and similar technological advances were evolving challenges for the CAB, Mr McMeel noted.

And while the proposed bill did not directly address those issues, the CAB believes the bill will help investigations into all types of proceeds of crime cases, including virtual, he said.

“The world has moved on and and it’s up to use to move with it,” he said.

'Pioneering' legislation

Ireland’s CAB legislation was “pioneering” when introduced in 1996, following the gangland murder of journalist Veronica Guerin who had been investigating criminals and their wealth.

Because the legislation was so far ahead of other countries, some jurisdictions failed to fully understand it and comply with its orders, the committee heard. But the EU has recently embraced similar legislation confiscating unexplained wealth which should make international cooperation much more effective, Brendan Bruen of the Department of Justice said.

And international co-operation is key to stripping criminals of their assets, the committee heard.

Senator Lynn Ruane called for more of the money raised through CAB to be filtered, through the exchequer, directly to the communities most impacted by crime, to break the cycles of poverty, disempowerment and addiction that fuel criminal behaviour.

Det Chief Supt Gubbins said that while criminals still benefit from people trapped in addiction and chaotic lifestyles similarly to how they did in the past, the amount they are willing to publicly share their ill-gotten wealth has increased through social media use. And this can be particularly problematic in communities where people may feel disempowered or trapped by poverty and look up to those with the "car, the watch, the lifestyle due to criminality" and aspire to also get those things. The CAB needs to go into those communities, Det Chief Supt Gubbins said.    

And locals "really appreciate it" when the CAB does come in and strip known criminals of their wealth, he said. 

Ms Ruane raised concerns about people who live in a seized property but had no involvement in the criminality – like innocent family members then becoming homeless. 

Senator Barry Ward asked what would happen in a case where a house had been bought from the local authority but was subsequently seized by the CAB, leaving the criminal’s parents who lived there homeless.

Mr McMeel said that people living in a property being seized by CAB would be put on notice of it. They may qualify for legal aid and could contest their right to housing.

Senator Michael McDowell raised concerns that the reduction from seven to two years before an asset could be disposed of by the State from the time it was deemed the proceeds of crime could leave vulnerable people - people with a disability or children - without adequate time or protection to assert their rights.

Det Chief Supt Gubbins said that CAB “is firmly supportive of the Bill".

One important change would be the introduction of “an important bespoke tool” for proceeds of crime investigators to freeze transactions (typically financial accounts) to allow the necessary investigations to take place, he said.

“Given the increasingly complex, financial and often multijurisdictional nature of proceeds of crime investigations, the Bureau submits that the proposal would be significantly more effective if the proposed maximum duration of such restraint orders is increased from the proposed 28 days to 56 days. This would ensure a more efficient use of the officers and court time,” he said.

Assistant Garda Commissioner Justin Kelly said that “An Garda Síochána is supportive of this piece of legislation, and welcomes the proposal to introduce these amendments.

“If adopted, this will compliment An Garda Síochána’s efforts to tackle organised and serious crime. It is our view that this Bill will streamline the operation of the Criminal Assets Bureau (CAB)."