Police strip $326 million from career criminals
Drug kingpins have been stripped of hundreds of millions of dollars in cash, luxury property and jewellery as police ramp up their use of a powerful legal tool.
In the past five years, police have recovered $326.1m worth of drug-funded assets under the Criminal Proceeds (Recovery) Act 2009.
The 2317 assets include multimillion-dollar residences in Auckland, homes in Tauranga, a farm in Raglan, boats, gold, original paintings, jewellery, cash, motorcycles and cars, as well as stamp and coin collections.
The money from the Criminal Proceeds Fund is put back into the community to combat the impact of drugs.
Information released under the Official Information Act shows the amount of wealth being extracted from the criminal economy in New Zealand has grown by millions year on year.
Since the introduction of the act in December 2009, the value in assets seized has quadrupled.
In 2010, police took 252 items worth $22m; in 2014, they recovered more than 508 items worth $93m.
Detective Senior Sergeant Craig Hamilton, of the Waikato and Bay of Plenty Asset Recovery Unit, said the law targets criminal profits by putting the onus on the accused to prove possessions were purchased with legitimate income.
It provides police with a power that career criminals in the drug trade are becoming increasingly fearful of, he said.
"The values are just increasing - we are taking $300 million out of the criminal economy. It's money that can't be used to fund that economy and people will start to hurt.
"It is one of the most powerful tools we have to bring people in and require them under court order to answer questions and provide evidence."
Police are able to freeze and forfeit property in two ways: by proving it was paid for through crimes, or by showing the owner had benefited by crime despite purchasing the property legitimately.
"There is certainly a very strong awareness in the criminal community of what we are doing and what we can do. It is a tough piece of legislation to beat. If people can prove they got their property legitimately, they have nothing to fear."
Most assets seized are a product of the methamphetamine trade - a destructive drug of choice in New Zealand, Hamilton said.
"The demand in our country for that drug is just terrible. It is the drug that causes our communities the most harm and is directly attributed to violent crime."
The 10 most valuable assets restrained were together worth an estimated $52.1m.
These include three residential homes in Auckland valued at $7.6m, $7.4m, and $5.9m, a farm in the Manawatu worth $5.4m and commercial Auckland property worth $3.2m.
This year, police froze $40m worth of Chinese businessman William Yan's assets while an investigation into alleged money laundering is undertaken.
Yan's assets include cash, fine wine, luxury cars, jewellery and an 18.8 per cent share in Kim Dotcom's company Mega Upload.
More than $176m in assets were restrained in the Auckland area - a major focal point for police looking to crack down on those importing pseudoephedrine and ContacNT, used to manufacture P, Hamilton said.
"It's really the gateway to New Zealand and impacts on all the other districts. The values of assets like property are increased when onsold in a market like Auckland."
Waikato's asset branch has seized 521 possessions, including Bonus Bonds and shares, worth $98.9m in the past five years. The largest number of assets seized in a single year were in 2013, when police restrained 155 assets.
It was the same year Waikato police made the biggest methamphetamine bust in five years.
At a property in Te Kuiti, they found 861 grams of methamphetamine with a street value of $550,000 to $600,000, ContacNT, cannabis and cannabis oil.
As a result, police seized $22,000 worth of cash and vehicles from Anthony Ray Sarsfield, who was sentenced to five years and nine months in jail in August this year after pleading guilty to a swathe of drug charges.
Also in 2013, $5.2m worth of property was confiscated from former Hamilton car dealer and convicted drug "mastermind" Stephen John Gray.
Gray was sentenced to 12 years in jail after being found guilty at trial of manufacturing large quantities of methamphetamine in 2012 and distributing them from an Exelby Rd residence. He was also found guilty of supplying ecstasy, selling LSD and cannabis.
Under the forfeiture order, Gray was forced to give up two vehicles (worth $45,000 each), a $900,000 home in Exelby Rd and the $3m farm in Te Uku, Raglan.
"We are really working hard for the community to make criminals who have made a lot of money on the back of the misery of others to make them accountable," Hamilton said.
DRUG KINGPIN'S DOWNFALL
Earlier this year, a forfeiture order to seize $1.7m in assets from convicted drug kingpin Gary John Read was made by police.
Assets included two houses in Tauranga - one valued at $589,857 and one at $602,857 - two Harley Davidson motorcycles, antiques, three vehicles, original paintings, and cash in bank accounts.
The Tauranga-based man was jailed for 11 years in August 2013 for smuggling millions of dollars' worth of precursor drugs from Thailand into New Zealand and feeding it to local gangs.
At his sentencing, the court heard how 14.5kg of pseudoephedrine - a main ingredient in the manufacture of methamphetamine - was smuggled into New Zealand, estimated to be worth between $6.1m and $8.7m.
He was described by sentencing Judge Kit Toogood as the "mastermind of a large-scale and sophisticated importation operation", which included posting packages of the drug to various addresses in Auckland, Waihi, Tauranga and Hamilton.
Outside criminal cases, the asset recovery unit is increasingly making settlements with property owners over forfeiture orders, Hamilton said.
Forfeiture cases are determined on the civil level of proof, rather than the higher criminal threshold of evidence beyond reasonable doubt.
"People will come to us and look at a settlement - that is occurring more frequently. They will look at it pragmatically and say, yes, I can spend a lot of money fighting this and come second or engage with police and settle," Hamilton said.
When it comes to settling, he said police are focused on the underlying principle of the act: to deter crime.
"We are taking action to prevent criminal enterprise expanding and we are not trying to trade that off, but we are being pragmatic about it."