Bad beat? Crown sues poker player for $10K seized in traffic stop

The province is suing a poker player from Hanwell to make him forfeit more than $10,000 that was recovered by police after he turned away from an RCMP check stop in November 2015.

Ha Van Nguyen, 44, told police the money was his bankroll for poker. However, the RCMP officer who pulled Nguyen over around 2 a.m. on Nov. 20, 2015 said there was a strong smell of marijuana coming from Nguyen's Nissan Titan truck.

In its statement of claim under New Brunswick's Civil Forfeiture Act, the province contends the cash is the proceeds of illegal drug activity or was to be used for something illegal and asks to have it forfeited to the Crown. Two cellphones and approximately $185 in loose cash were also seized.

Nguyen had an outstanding charge of marijuana possession from Oct. 1, 2015, and was convicted of producing marijuana in 2006 and was sentenced to six months in jail.

No charges pursued

Criminal charges stemming from Nguyen's arrest on Nov. 20, 2015, were not pursued.

However, New Brunswick's Civil Forfeiture Act allows the province to seize property through a civil action even if a criminal charge is not proven or even pursued.

In his statement of defence, Nguyen denies that the cash seized from him was from, or to be used for, unlawful activity.

Nguyen also argues in his statement of defence that provincial court Judge Mary Jane Richards made an order in February 2017 that all the property seized from Nguyen be returned to Nguyen's lawyer in trust and that has not taken place.

"The order of Judge Richards is … a final order in the proceeding and the proper avenue for contesting the order is through the appeal process," states Nguyen in his statement of defence.

'Poker bank roll'

Nguyen told the RCMP the night of the seizure that he played poker at St. Mary's Entertainment Centre at St. Mary's First Nation and the money was his "poker bank roll."

The information contained in the statements of claim and defence has not been proven in court.

An incident report by Const. Jesse Abernathy notes that Nguyen was "very co-operative and not upset about his money being seized though he did ask if he would likely have it back by the end of the weekend as he was going to go play poker next week."

RCMP Const. Mathieu LeBlanc states in an affidavit that he spoke with William Chan of the Atlantic Lottery Corp. on May 19, 2016, and Chan indicated the lottery corporation's databases show Nguyen did not have any lottery winnings of more than $1,000.

However, Nguyen has fared well in some high-stakes poker events since the traffic stop in November 2015. He won the Atlantic Canada poker championship and its $30,000 first prize at Red Shores Casino in Charlottetown in October 2016. In April 2016,  he won more than $12,000 with a 13th-place finish as the World Poker Tour's Canadian spring championship at Kahnawake First Nation in Quebec.

2 a.m. check stop

The RCMP check stop was on Route 640 in Hanwell at about 2 a.m. and when Nguyen approached it from the north, he turned his vehicle around. RCMP then followed his vehicle and the officer noticed a bag being thrown out of the passenger side window of the truck.

When the bag was retrieved it was found to contain $10,700 in six bundles of cash in a vacuum-sealed bag. Five of the bundles were held together with elastics while one bundle was not held by elastics. The amount of money per bundle ranged from $200 to $2,000, with the bill denominations being $10, $20 or $50, with most of the bundles consisting of $20 bills.

Nguyen told the RCMP officer he threw out the money because he was "a little bit scared" because he had a small amount of marijuana with him.

"The reason why I was scared was because I had [marijuana], it wasn't because I had money," Nguyen is quoted as saying in a supplementary RCMP report by Const. Shawn Elhatton. "The money was for my poker bank roll."

Drug residue on money

The seized money was tested by RCMP Const. Stéphanie Courteau for the presence of residue from controlled substances and explosives. Courteau states in a court document she obtained positive results for the presence of explosives and/or cocaine and/or heroin on all the bundles of money and the loose money seized from Nguyen.

LeBlanc, who investigates proceeds of crime and money-laundering offences for the RCMP out of the Moncton detachment, states in an affidavit that he believes the cash seized from Nguyen to be the profits from the sale of a controlled substance. He points to the bundling of bills in the fashion used with Nguyen's money to be typical of the handling of money in the illegal drug trade.

Nguyen's case is the second one dealing with a cash seizure under the Civil Forfeiture Act to come before the courts recently. In late January, Court of Queen's Bench Justice Jean-Paul Ouellette ruled the New Brunswick government was allowed to keep more than $55,000 seized from an Ottawa man during a traffic stop in New Brunswick in 2015, even though no criminal charges against the man even proceeded to trial.

A trial date for the Nguyen case has not been set.