Jail-cell seminars as Mr Bigs try to protect ill-gotten gains

CRIMINALS are running seminars in prison on proceeds-of-crime laws after being stripped of more than £2 million worth of cash, property, cars, jewellery and speed boats by prosecutors.

The Crown Office and senior police believe the legislation is now more feared among members of the criminal underworld than being sent to jail.

In the past eight months, £2,205,386 has been confiscated through 56 orders, and passed to the Scottish Government to be given out to good causes through its Cashback for Communities scheme.

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Under the Proceeds of Crime Act, prosecutors identify wealth and goods belonging to a convicted criminal that they do not believe was made or bought through legitimate earnings.

It is then up to the individual to prove that it was.

The act has become one of the favourite weapons in the armoury of police and the Crown Office, who believe stripping criminals of their wealth, assets and even their homes is a stronger deterrent than custodial sentences.

In the past, criminals have been prepared to do their time, as long as they come out to their big homes, fast cars and the other trappings of their illegal activities.

In the past year the Scottish Government and Crown Office have increased their use of the Proceeds of Crime Act. The threshold above which a Proceeds of Crime investigation is triggered has been lowered from £5,000 to £1,000. And for the first time, criminals who have been ordered to sell their homes to repay their illicit earnings are having control of the sale taken off them if they stall and reject reasonable offers.

Lindsey Miller, head of the Crown Office’s serious and organised crime division, said: “Prison is not a deterrent. Proceeds of crime is a deterrent. Proceeds of crime is a way to disrupt. The criminal may have to sell his cars or jewellery – that has a significant impact.”

There have been concerns raised previously by police that money-laundering laws are not as effective in other countries as in the UK, and this makes it more difficult to pursue Mr Bigs abroad.

However, the Crown Office said it now had good relationships with other jurisdictions in their efforts to ensure there is nowhere left for criminals to hide their profits.

Ms Miller said: “We’ve had a lot of contact recently with the United Arab Emirates, Cyprus and Spain. We have a very good relationship with the Spanish authorities, both for criminal prosecution and money-laundering. From that perspective it’s a lot easier than it might have been in the past.” She added: “There’s always room for improvement. It’s not perfect, no legislation ever is, but it’s an extremely powerful piece of legislation and a huge asset to the prosecution.”

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Prosecutors are also getting tougher on criminals who try to avoid selling their homes to repay their debts. Some of the houses are difficult to sell because of the state of the market, others because of the criminals’ taste – one was decorated, at some expense, with giraffe wallpaper. Another house, owned by a family of four, contained 14 flat screen TVs and a 11 Sky HD boxes.

“Often they don’t want to sell the property so they use tactics such as pricing it out of the market,” Ms Miller said.

“What we can do is ask the court to appoint an administrator, who sells the property on our behalf. So if there is reluctance or resistance, we can up the ante and take it out of the accused’s hands.”

Offenders are known to invest criminal profits in high-value items of jewellery, such as watches, which are relatively easy to conceal and do not lose value.

Laura Buchan, head of the proceeds of crime unit at the Crown Office, said: “In one case recently, at the high end, the watches we were taking were worth about £8,000 to £12,000 each.

“We want to show people in the street, who see people benefiting from crime, that we are going to take that benefit away from them.

“We still see a lot of property. When looking at profiles we don’t just look at the accused, but also family members, his wife – in some cases his wife and his girlfriend – so just putting the house in the wife’s or girlfriend’s name does not absolve you of responsibility. A lot of money goes into child trust funds. It’s still available to us, it’s still criminal benefit.”

The tell-tale signs of a criminally funded lifestyle are often clear. “For example, you see this man who has never claimed, never earned, but has a £300,000 house owned by his wife, and his children all have £20,000 in bank accounts,” Ms Buchan said.

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Police believe proceeds-of-crime laws have made a huge impact on organised crime.

Deputy Chief Constable Gordon Meldrum, director general of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency, said: “By utilising the full capabilities of the legislation, we can seriously disrupt the activities of serious organised crime groups.

“Seizing their criminal assets means we are potentially cutting off their cashflow, making it difficult for them to operate.

“Our financial and forensic accountancy experts will follow the money trail wherever it goes, and that includes going beyond our jurisdiction and working with law enforcement and other agencies in other countries.

“We are committed to using all means available to ensure criminals no longer enjoy the profits of their illegal dealings.”

The Scottish Government said money seized through proceeds of crime had enabled it to reinvested £11 million into community projects this year alone.

Justice secretary Kenny Mac-Askill said: “It is a programme that makes crime pay by seizing crooks’ cash and investing it in the young people of Scotland through an ever-growing series of sporting, cultural, educational and mentoring activities for children and youngsters.”