Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Those Neighbours From Hell

"It seems to me is that it's almost an expansion of provincial powers into what used to be the purview of criminal law. Now we have provinces making various laws that are essentially making it easier for police and prosecution to get some kind of action against people they perceive to be wrongdoers."
"In recent years with the Ontario Civil Remedies Act and out West here there have been a lot of cities using by-laws to combat grow operations -- allowing fire inspectors to get easier access into buildings. It doesn't surprise me that governments are trying to expand their ability to make their way into private homes."
David MacAlister, criminology professor, Simon Fraser University
Dean Bicknell / Calgary Herald
Dean Bicknell / Calgary Herald    Grant Wright one of the investigators for ALERT turning the key on the lock on the front gate in front of a home on Kilkenny Rd. S.W on Monday February 14, 2011 in Calgary. Authorities shut down the home a suspected drug house using the Safer Communities legislation.
"The state is granting itself broad authority to do all sorts of things that the Crown used to have to prove in court. The way the language is being used is frightening. The state is giving itself a huge amount of authority and reducing its level of accountability all the way."
"In jurisdictions across the country now, there are campaigns to promote safe communities, but at what cost? The cost of privacy and security in our own homes with neighbours being able to just file a complaint? It smacks of Cold War East Bloc countries where neighbours are spying on neighbours and the state swoops in. There's something distasteful and ominous about that."
Sharon Polsky, director, Rocky Mountain Civil Liberties Association
Private homes they may be, but in instances where civil authority 'swoops in', it seems they are indeed providing a social good. Take, for example an Edmonton 'home' where over one hundred police calls had been generated since 2007 by anxious neighbours. Seven years since the first calls came in to police complaints, authorities came along with a metal fence and sheets of plywood. After evicting all the tenants the house was shut down for 90 days.

"Oh, we're very relieved. Very relieved. You never know what kind of serious incidents might happen" commented neighbour Margaret Larsen for whom a decade of living beside the house meant familiarity with it and its residents. "When you have a house with those kinds of neighbours any terrible thing could happen", she says commenting on a suspected meth lab across the street that burned to the ground several years earlier.

 And she praises the Safer Communities and Neighbourhood Act, Alberta jurisdictional legislation enabling neighbours to anonymously report "problem" residences and businesses.

‘Prolific’ drug house in north Edmonton boarded up after lengthy investigation
SCAN manager Chip Sawchuk stands on Feb. 20, 2014 in front of an Alberta Avenue home that for years has been a haven for drug addicts and prostitutes. The building will be cleaned up thanks to an Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams investigation.   Photograph by: Jason Franson , Edmonton Journal
Those problems ranged from properties used for the convenience of drug dealers, prostitutes, gangs and others who are chronically challenged by alcoholism and drug addiction. Any activity deemed to harm the health and well-being of a neighbourhood is recognized as reportable. Reports elicit a response by SCAN units in an initial investigation to determine whether reasonable grounds exist for further action. All too often these are properties where the owners lease them to others.

Manitoba was the first province to implement SCAN laws, spread since to Saskatchewan, Yukon, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Alberta, and latterly, British Columbia. Such legislation has been discussed in the Ontario legislature from time to time, but never implemented. Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health opposed proposed Ontario legislation, deeming it discriminatory against those with drug and mental health problems.

SCAN has been instrumental in closing down crack houses, boarding houses, late-night bars, massage parlours, even a neighbourhood corner store suspected of selling mouthwash to the homeless. Civil forfeiture acts have also been introduced in several provinces. Enabling the seizure of property believed to represent the avails of criminal activities. A lower burden of proof is required by the civil court system, unlike a criminal court which demands evidence of guilt beyond a doubt.

"If people are smoking marijuana outside of their door, we will go and speak to them about it and we will give them a verbal warning. Smoking marijuana is illegal, unless you have a permit to do so", commented Pat Irving, acting manager of public safety investigations with Manitoba Justice, a former police officer. "Based on our experience under our legislation if we can show adverse effects are habitual, we will contact the property owner and with the property owner will come up with a remedy."

"It's the drug trafficking that is the general crux of most of our investigations", said Mr. Irving. A 61-year-old Manitoba woman came under investigation after failing to evict her drug-addled son. Now that's a tough one; how do you convince a mother whose instinct is to try to protect and harbour a child from the heartlessness of stern justice that demands she must surrender her child to his due punishment by isolating him from the only support available to him?

SCAN laws target prostitution frequently, a means of livelihood not illegal under Canadian law, although virtually everything else about the trade is, rather complicating the issue of its practise. The Supreme Court recently struck down laws against keeping a common bawdy house, so it's not clear how that one will iron out. SCAN laws, in pursuing property owners leaves landlords responsible for untoward behaviour they have not themselves engaged in.

The Night Owl in New Brunswick was an after-hours club with a bad reputation where late-night fights, drugs and drinking were common. The club was without a liquor permit and the landlord, when asked to terminate the lease, investigated the club's activities coming away convinced the establishment was doing nothing illegal; he saw no evidence of alcohol sales. "I wouldn't risk my business for that stuff. I have too much to lose. And I was getting rent from him, a good amount."

Nevertheless, the SCAN unit returned with an order to close down the establishment for a 90 day period. "Now I can't even go into my own building", said landlord Mario Charlebois. In Edmonton, Chip Sawchuk who heads its SCAN unit, testifies to the thoroughness of his team's investigations. "[They] are exhaustive and long. Any Community Safety Order could have hundreds and hundreds of man hours put into them. They're not two, three, four, ten hours of work -- they can easily be in excess of over two years."

Without doubt there will always be tensions within neighbourhoods where one household may stand out as having values and behaviour issues not reflecting those of general society. People's homes are their havens, their private castles, where they can be assured others will not intrude, and leave them to their solitude, if that's what they value. It's when activities take place noticeable because of their perceived threat to the well-being of others, or impacting directly on them, that the neighbour-from-hell syndrome kicks in.

It's everyone's secret nightmare; that their satisfaction with the home they live in can be imperilled by the hostile actions of people living in close geographic proximity. For most people it's a tough situation when it occurs, and little that can be done about it, particularly when it's a matter of interpersonal relationships involving just the two families concerned. For other people it's the proximity of threats actual or perceived and if their complaints have merit, there is a social response.

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