Hitting Crooks Where It Hurts
Crime Lords have long gotten away with their role in criminal activities. Perched at the top of the criminal chain, they pull the strings, secure in the knowledge that their wealth and resources will protect them from criminal investigation. Their underlings, who do the dirty work, are far more likely to be implicated in investigations.
Enter unexplained wealth legislation. Proposed new Commonwealth laws would make it possible for the government to seize the assets of individuals who cannot prove that their wealth was obtained legitimately.
The idea is that taking the wealth away from major criminals would have a significant impact on future organised crime, as those individuals could no longer reinvest their ill-gotten gains into further criminal activities. By going after the very thing that motivates them – money – the ringleaders would be hit where it hurts most.
While current Commonwealth law does allow for the proceeds of crime to be seized, the proposed new laws are tougher. Currently, in order for assets to be confiscated, the Crown must be able to show that it is very likely that the assets are the proceeds of crime. So the onus of proof is on the prosecutor to connect wealth to a particular crime, which can be difficult.
But under the proposed unexplained wealth provisions, the onus of proof is reversed. The individual must explain how they came by their wealth, or risk losing it.
The implications are significant. No longer would the Crown have to link wealth to a crime. To seize an individuals assets they would only need to have reasonable grounds to suspect that their wealth was greater than the amount they could lawfully have earned.
So while criminal identities would not necessarily be convicted of offences, their resources would be significantly undermined, affecting their future involvement in organised crime.
Under the new laws, the role of financial operators would become particularly important in providing investigators with financial intelligence to uncover suspicious transactions.
Key to the success of the legislation is the introduction of similar laws at a State level. Only Western Australia and the Northern Territory currently have unexplained wealth laws, and South Australia has just introduced draft legislation. Without a nation-wide approach, organised crime leaders can simply relocate to a state that does not have these provisions. Business as usual.
Of course, not everyone favours the proposed laws. Civil liberties groups fear that innocent people, who cannot provide records or receipts, might be targeted.
The Parliamentary Committee into the Australian Crime Commission has recommended that the Commonwealth governments unexplained wealth laws be passed, but encourages the government to continue working with States and Territories on an integrated national approach.