By Dr Lael Weis
Should the state be able to seize ‘all or any’ property ‘owned or controlled by’ persons convicted of multiple drug-related offences, regardless of the connection of that property to the commission of crime?
In a recently decided case, Attorney General (NT) v Emmerson  HCA 13, the High Court upheld Northern Territory criminal forfeiture legislation that authorises exactly that. In upholding the legislation, the Court held that the constitutional requirement that laws for the acquisition of property must be on ‘just terms’ is categorically inapplicable to criminal forfeiture, no matter how harsh, on the basis that it falls within a historically well-established exemption for punitive laws.
Reginald Emmerson’s crimes and possessions
In February 2011 Reginald William Emmerson was charged with two offences: the supply of 18.6646 kilograms of cannabis (with an estimated commercial value between $184,500 and $918,400, depending on the quantity in which it was sold), and the possession of $70,500 obtained from the commission of drug related-offences in the Northern Territory. In conjunction with prior convictions for possession and use (but notably not the supply or sale) of drugs, this made him eligible to have all of his property restrained in anticipation of him becoming eligible to be declared a ‘drug trafficker’ under s 36A of the Misuse of Drugs Act (NT) if he was convicted. The Director of Public Prosecutions applied to restrain his property and, after his conviction for the February 2011 charges, to have the Northern Territory Supreme Court make such a declaration. The sole and direct legal consequence of that declaration was forfeiture of Mr Emmerson’s restrained property to the Territory, pursuant to s 94(1) of the Criminal Property Forfeiture Act (NT). That particular section of the Forfeiture Act provides for the forfeiture of ‘all property … that is owned or effectively controlled by the person’ and ‘all property that was given away by the person, whether before or after the commencement of this Act’ for any person declared a ‘drug trafficker’ under s 36A of the Misuse of Drugs Act.
When Mr Emmerson was ultimately convicted of the February 2011 charges in September of that year, he forfeited property valued in excess of $850,000 to the Northern Territory, including: his home, 12 vehicles (including a ute, a boat and trailer and motorcycles) and bank accounts. All parties accepted that, apart from the $70,050 seized from Mr Emmerson’s most recent offence, the forfeited property had been acquired through legitimate means and had no connection to any criminal offence.
Mr Emmerson challenged the forfeiture on two bases: (1) on the basis that the relevant statutory provisions violated the separation of judicial power under ch III of the Commonwealth Constitution, and (2) on the basis that it effected an acquisition of property that was otherwise than on ‘just terms’ in contravention of S 50(1) of the Northern Territory Self-Government Act 1978 (Cth).
Both challenges were rejected by a 6:1 majority of the High Court (with Gageler J not deciding the ch III issue, and dissenting on the property issue).
With apologies to any Kable fans out there, this entry focuses exclusively on the acquisition of property issue. What follows is a fairly lengthy — and, OK yes, at times indulgent — discussion of some of the ins and outs and twists and turns of constitutional property jurisprudence issues implicated by the Court’s strict adherence to this categorical exemption for forfeiture laws in the Emmerson case.
Those of you who are not particularly interested in going on such a ride are probably better jumping off here, and checking out the judgment summary.