Taking man's home a poor answer

Nicodemo Bruzzese is a 52-year-old drug addict. Sometimes he sells drugs as well, to support his destructive habit. He's been busted many, many times over the years, for a variety of minor offences.

In most of his court appearances, his long-time defence lawyer Rob Bruneau has also told the court Bruzzese suffered a serious head injury more than two decades ago, after he was in a bad car accident.

That injury seems to have robbed Bruzzese of some of his judgment, his common sense, his ability to say no to people and to stand up for himself, judges have been told.

Many of his legal problems have been caused by the fact he is easily manipulated by others and is vulnerable, his lawyer has said. He's an easy mark in a brutal world.

One significant detail separated Bruzzese from other crack addicts. He owned a home. It was bequeathed to him a few years ago by his father, who wanted to provide some security for his dysfunctional son.

Bruzzese lost his home Wednesday. It was ordered forfeited to the state after he pleaded guilty to selling an undercover officer small amounts of cocaine - about $400 worth in all - on five occasions in 2008.

His lawyer and the federal Crown prosecutor told B.C. Supreme Court Justice Richard Blair that Bruzzese consented to the forfeiture. The joint submission saw him released from jail after serving seven months of pre-trial custody (the legal equivalent of a 14-month jail sentence). The loss of his $255,000 home - he owned it free and clear - saved him extra time in jail, perhaps as much as six or seven months, which is all he likely would have served, considering how our jail system works.

Justice Blair agreed the sentence is a significant punishment for Bruzzese, who had allowed the house to deteriorate into a neighbourhood crack shack used by addicts, prostitutes and other drug dealers as a base and a refuge.

"What he did was offer a safe haven for any number of drug addicts, conduct neither the court nor the community can condone. The removal of the property from his possession will eliminate a (neighbourhood) problem," said Blair.

Bruzzese was released to the street Thursday with nowhere to go. He is homeless, thanks to recent laws and court decisions that endorse forfeiture of private property in instances where it is central to the commission of crime.

The trouble is, Bruzzese is not the kind of criminal I suspect Parliament or judges envisioned when they approved such forfeitures.

And I can't help but feel Bruzzese did no differently in court Wednesday than he's done so many times over the years. He said yes when it was not in his best interests to do so. He didn't say no when he needed to, nor did he stand up for himself when it counted.

He agreed to give up the most substantial asset he had - something that offered him at least the hope of security and a better life - for a really questionable reason. He got walked over, one more time.

Most property forfeitures I've seen have been of properties used to grow marijuana. In almost all the cases, homes or barns and sheds housed significant commercial grow-ops capable of producing hundreds of thousands in illegal profit.

Those properties were often mortgaged to the hilt, with minimal investments of cash made by the owners. They were not residences, but marijuana factories.

Bruzzese's house was once a home, his parents' home, where he and his siblings were raised. The court acknowledged as much by agreeing to allow the man one last entry to retrieve his personal effects and a lifetime of possessions with family sentimental value.

While it may have become a crack shack, the house at 861 Nicolani Dr. was not a commercial enterprise. It was a squalid, pathetic den of despair. If Bruzzese sold drugs from it, inevitably he was motivated to do so by addiction, not profit. He gained so little from the lifestyle he was leading there.

Inevitably, the fact he was such a fat pigeon made it easy for the alley cats to manipulate him and use his house in ways society deplores. He has been a victim, too, in different ways.

It's a shame Bruzzese's house was taken so easily. It strikes me a justice system that proclaims fairness and humanity as principle foundations should not have allowed him to so easily acquiesce.

At the least, the Crown's application for forfeiture should have been opposed and strenuously argued. Efforts should have been made to distinguish Bruzzese from all the other dope growers who lost their properties.

He is easily distinguishable from them. He is a crack addict who owned a home thanks to the good faith (although perhaps ill-conceived) generosity of his dying father, who no doubt wanted to do something good for his son.

We have adversarial justice and, at times, the courts must require parties to be adverse, to ensure important issues like this - ones with such significant ability to alter lives - are properly weighed.

Justice Blair could have asked for more than he had before ordering the home be seized. He could have delayed it pending a careful look at the issues.

Bruzzese lost so much Thursday and society gained so little. It was a disturbing, saddening display that left me feeling a little grim.

The penalty Bruzzese has paid is grossly disproportionate to that which so many other low-level, drug-addicted crack-shack street dealers have been handed.

He needs to be held accountable for his actions, for certain. I'm not suggesting he is blameless. And without question the people around him are entitled to live free of the crime and fear crack houses bring.

But taking so much from someone in pathetic circumstances like Bruzzese can't be the answer. There has to be more meaningful ways, whether the man who lost it all thinks he agrees or not.

Robert Koopmans covers the courts for The Daily News. He can be reached at 250-372-2331, or by e-mail at r_koopmans@mac.com.

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