B.C. mushroom picker loses bid to get back $10k seized at Pearson Airport

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
This file photo shows planes sitting on the tarmac at Toronto Pearson Airport, in 2011. Aveos Fleet Performance on Monday sought bankruptcy protection, saying a sudden drop-off in aircraft maintenance work for Canada's flag carrier, its biggest client, had forced it to shutter operations. (AFP Photo/Bruce Bennett)

I can't decide whether or not I feel sorry for B.C. resident Robert Docherty, who had more than $10,000 in cash seized by Canadian customs officers at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.

Under Canada's Proceeds of Crime (Money Laundering) and Terrorist Financing Act, the Maple Ridge wild-mushroom picker was entitled to carry carry $10,000, and not a dollar more, out of the country without declaring it.

According to the National Post, Docherty was boarding a flight to Costa Rica in November 2010 when a dog trained to sniff out money (they have those?) found Docherty's stash of cash.

There was $9,880 in U.S. currency and another $335 Canadian. Docherty explained he'd calculated the Canada-U.S. exchange rate so the total amount to come in under the $10,000 limit.

The trouble was that by the time he took his flight two days later, the U.S. dollar had strengthened, making his package worth more than $10,000 Canadian.

Agents seized the money under the legislation and unlike criminal charges, the onus falls on people like Docherty to prove the money was legitimately acquired. In other words, guilty until proved innocent.

Docherty failed and the cash was forfeited to the Crown.

[ Related: Suitcases of Chinese cash flooding Canada's borders ]

Whether or not you believe Docherty's story that the money was destined for a real estate deal involving a seller who wanted cash, his experience paints a picture of what happens when people who live by their own rules run afoul of the state's rules.

Docherty went through a ministerial review process to try and get his money back. When that failed, he went to Federal Court, which upheld the government's decision, and then he took it to the Federal Court of Appeal. In both instances he represented himself without a lawyer.

If you take a few minutes to read the Appeal Court's decision here, you'll get a flavour of the bureaucratic meat grinder that awaits someone like Docherty.

In a nutshell, the Appeal Court justices agreed the government and the Federal Court judge had done everything right, though Appeal Court Justice Denis Pelletier chided his lower-court brother for suggesting Docherty was greedy because he'd calculated the amount to slide just under the $10,000 limit.

“This is a case of a traveller sailing too close to the legal winds," the Federal Court judge said, according to the Post. "But for greed, this applicant would not be in court.”

"In commenting as he did, the Federal Court judge attracted the allegation of bias, unnecessarily putting into question the impartiality to which all litigants are entitled from the Court," Pelletier said.

"That said, it requires more than an unfortunate turn of phrase to support an allegation of bias.

In the end, though, the judges agreed the fault lay in Docherty's dubious explanations for the cash — it was part of a 20-year-old inheritance; mushroom picking is a cash business; the money was in the hands of his daughter — and in his non-existent record-keeping.

Sorry buddy, you're out of luck.

[ Related: Ottawa woman wants seized cash returned ]

Our society doesn't embrace people who colour outside the lines. To the government, the fact Docherty was carrying a large amount of cash was deeply suspicious. That's what criminals do, its lawyers argued. It didn't help that Docherty had a criminal conviction dating from 1993.

I know what you're thinking. Why didn't he just leave the money in the bank and do his real estate deal with a bank transfer? Or why didn't he give himself a bigger safety margin when calculating the exchange rate?

Docherty's not saying. But his experience should prove cautionary to the rest of us.