5 Sep 2022

Government further expands police asset seizure powers

3:01 pm on 5 September 2022

A series of law changes targeting gangs will give police broader criteria for seizing assets, and allow them to keep some seized assets for longer.

Justice Minister Kiri Allan and Police Minister Chris Hipkins announced the changes alongside Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after today's Cabinet meeting.

The changes to the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act would:

  • Allow police to seize assets from people with proven association with a criminal group, who have insufficient legitimate property to acquire assets worth more than $30,000
  • Assets seized from criminals based overseas will be able to be taken permanently unless the owner can prove they obtained it legally within two months
  • Allow assets seized to be retained for longer than 28 days while a court considers a restraining order
  • Allow seizure of funds held in KiwiSaver schemes, meaning criminals can't hide illegal funds in their KiwiSaver

The Act allows property - including real estate, cash and vehicles - to be seized by police if a court is satisfied on the balance of probabilities that it has come from significant criminal activity.

Allan said the changes were about ensuring crime does not pay.

"Currently, organised criminals structure their affairs to avoid their illicit assets being restrained and forfeited. This is done by creating distance between themselves and the assets by putting property into associates' names," she said.

Hipkins said it was the next step in the government's work to curb crime and make communities safer.

"It will mean that not only do we have more frontline police than ever before, they also have greater powers to hit gangs where it hurts," he said.

Ardern said the government was stepping up efforts to respond to gang and criminal activity while investing in new opportunities for young people to break the cycle of crime.

The goal had always been to make communities safer and had delivered the largest police force in New Zealand's history, with greater powers to tackle criminal activity, she said.

"But we know there is more to do, some parts of the country have been experiencing gang tension and Auckland in particular is experiencing a spike in youth offending including 357 ram raids across the country this year, with some shops and business owners experiencing multiple events."

Police had been taking direct action, and there had been 225 prosecutions and 94 youth referrals since January, Ardern said.

"While it's important to remember that actually overall youth crime has been decreasing over the past decade, there is unquestionably a problem right now that we have to keep working hard to fix."

Ardern said young people had disengaged with school, training and job opportunities through the Covid-19 response, and ministers Hipkins and Sepuloni would tomorrow make an announcement to ramp up investment in young people and create opportunities for them.

"One existing example of this is the cross-agency support based in South Auckland. Over the past four months, all children under the age of 14 who were apprehended as a result of a fleeing driver or ram raid or other serious offending in Counties Manukau have been referred to the board who support them then into programmes that steer them away from crime. As a result, three quarters of them have not reoffended."

There would be more details on that tomorrow, Ardern said.

Today's announcement of an amendment to the criminal proceeds recovery act would give police more powers to deal with the financing of gangs, she said.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Justice Minister Kiri Allan.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Justice Minister Kiri Allan. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Allan said the intergovernmental financial action taskforce has rated New Zealand as just one of five countries with a high level of effectiveness at confiscating the proceeds of crime.

"However the success of the regime has driven leaders of organised crime to seek new ways to evade law enforcement, hiding and disguising their ownership of property by using their associates and friends."

The reason for the change was due to a significant number of investigations revealing organised crime leaders were structuring their affairs to hide their property, Allan said.

"This change will send a strong message to gang leaders causing significant harm in our communities: You will no longer be able to keep your hands clean while still making a profit."

The definition of "associate" will be someone more than merely an acquaintance.

"Often it is families and those loved ones that are the most vulnerable to have to be the people that have received goods that are often obtained illegally or improperly ... there's two things we've done to protect there, one is that threshold.

"If you were to find that you had $30,000 or property thereof, randomly and unaccounted for, I think there's probably fair call ... that maybe this has come from an improperly gained method."

The threshold of $30,000 came from advice received which the government had been told would be Bill of Rights Act compliant, but "police and others may have a different view".

"If you were to find that you had $30,000 or property thereof, randomly and unaccounted for, I think there's probably fair call ... that maybe this has come from an improperly gained method...

"We are actively seeking to hear those expressions and views through the select committee process and are approaching that with an open mind about the threshold."

The $30,000 threshold had come from the definition of significant criminal activity already within the act.

Thinking about the gangsters that are driving around in their ill-gotten gains - their cars or their Harleys or whatnot - those bikes are expensive, those cars are expensive, I had a little look today: In excess of $40,000 to $50,000. So you can be assured that those ... types of assets will be caught by this threshold."

The focus on restraining orders and forfeiture orders had been in policy development for some time, Allan said.

Allan said the measures targeting people overseas did not allow the seizure of assets that are overseas.

The KiwiSaver changes had come from a few court cases which had shown situations where property has been gained illegally but no action could be taken to seize those assets.

Allan was not sure how many cases that applied to.

"I don't have that number with me but it's certainly a sufficient number that police in particular have asked us to make a fix and we're happy to oblige."

Ardern said there were not many other countries which had done this, "but we are venturing into this space because we believe that this is an area - now that we've moved on the proceeds of crime - this is the next frontier".

The amendments were expected to net the Crown an extra $25 million a year, which went into the Proceeds of Crime Fund which was used to reduce reoffending and other programmes that were aimed at breaking the cycle of criminality, Ardern said.

To those people knowingly hiding assets, Allan said: "Time is up. You no longer have the opportunity to be able to do this."

Police Minister Chris Hipkins and Justice Minister Kiri Allan collage.

Police Minister Chris Hipkins and Justice Minister Kiri Allan. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver / Stuff / Robert Kitchin