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Is the Proceeds of Crime Act a sledgehammer to crack a criminal nut?

Chris Jackson | 19:30 UK time, Monday, 8 March 2010

John DarwinWhen John Darwin pretended he'd drowned in his canoe off Seaton Carew he and his wife were all set to scam £250,000 pounds in insurance and start a new life in Panama.

Now they're both behind bars but the police used the Proceeds of Crime Act to slap the devious couple with a bill for around £600,000. Why? because their ill gotten gains were invested and turned in a tidy profit. Under the law it was all up for grabs.

The Act allows the authorities to not only recover any amount made in the actual crime but also any subsequent gain it makes.

Interestingly the police, and some other authorities who can use this power - such as trading standards, can also rifle through a convict's bank accounts and can legally "assume" any other income was not legitimate and seize that too.

Detective Inspector David TurnbullFor Detective Inspector David Turnbull at Cleveland Police this is a great piece of legislation. It means when a convict comes out of jail he can't return to the life of luxury he might have built up on a life of crime.

It's up to the criminal to prove each and every bit of their income is clean or else it could be confiscated. In effect you're guilty until you can prove you're innocent.

That's how the two people we featured - a dodgy DVD seller and a pharmacist who over-claimed prescription charges - ended up with crippling demands for money. Both agreed they should be punished for breaking the law, but they were distraught that their lives were being crushed for offences that were of low value.

The law was brought in as the way to hit major criminals such as drugs barons where it hurts - in their pockets.

Nigel BarnesSome people such as Sunderland solicitor Nigel Barnes fear this law is being used disproportionately. The House of Lords was also concerned recently the power to seize assets and freeze bank accounts may be extended to other authorities with no real debate.

What's your take on this? Do criminals deserve everything the justice system can throw at them or should the punishment always match the crime? Please add your comments.

For more info on the other stories we covered see the previous blog.

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