New law targets crack shacks
To Tyler Ducharme, it’s a familiar pattern.
Police swarm the drug house down the street. The addicts and dealers scatter. A few are arrested, offering momentary tranquility to him and his Port Haney neighbours. It lasts only a few hours, at most a day.
As soon as the last police car pulls away from the powder blue heritage home on St. Anne’s Avenue, the people filter back.
“Personally, I don’t think it’s over – one can still see the players involved lurking about,” says Ducharme, pessimistic that the March 7 drug bust by police and subsequent enforcement by the district’s bylaw officers will have a lasting effect on his neighbourhood.
“As the week has gone on, the traffic at the location has gone up. This place is pretty entrenched. Residents around here have been through this for years, whether this location or numerous other ones in the area. We just want a bit of break and take the level of crazy down a few notches.”
New legislation that passed last week might give Ducharme and his neighbours that break.
The Community Safety Act will allow people to submit confidential complaints to a new provincial unit charged with investigating, mediating and working with property owners to curb various unlawful and dangerous activities. On substantiating a complaint, the unit will take steps to force the property owner to address identified issues.
Where problems persist, the provincial unit may apply in civil court for a community safety order, which may bar certain individuals from the property or close it for up to 90 days.
Similar legislation in force in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Yukon has seen most identified problems cease without court involvement; less than one per cent of complaints have led to an application for a community safety order.
“The legislation is more than a longtime coming, if anything, it is ridiculously overdue,” said Ducharme.
“What communities need is another tool in the box that can be used when situations are clearly getting out of control. When situations like crack shacks become obvious or full functioning operations and average citizens see nothing being done by the various levels of government, that feeds into the overall apathy and makes people less likely to get involved in solutions, both short- and long-term.”
Ducharme and a now-defunct community group pushed for years for similar legislation after realizing that authorities can do little when a landlord won’t tackle drug-dealing tenants.
B.C. Liberal MLA Marc Dalton, who represents Maple Ridge and Mission, took their concerns to Victoria, where years of lobbying and research have finally paid off.
“I’m really excited this is in place,” said Dalton.
“There is a real frustration amongst citizens about what’s going on. These properties often create a cycle of problems that are never-ending. I can tell the neighbourhoods where there are problems like this because you can sense the fear.”
Unlike criminal laws, the civil legislation will target properties where the occupants may change frequently, but the problem activities persist, and the property owners fail to take effective action to stop them.
B.C.’s act will target properties used for drug production and trafficking, prostitution, after-hour parties and those linked to gangs and organized crime.
Dalton says the new act does not target individuals, but the properties.
“The property owners or people involved do not get a criminal record, but there will be a squeeze on the property,” he added.
“It’s not that everyone jumps on the property after one complaint. There have to be multiple complaints.”
For safety reasons, the unit tasked with enforcing the Community Safety Act will treat all complaints as strictly confidential and will not disclose complainants’ identities. Court actions initiated by the unit will disclose evidence secured by the unit’s investigators; complainants will not be identified, quoted or called to testify.
The legislation won’t stall or trump criminal investigations and still respects the rights of tenants and landlords enshrined in the Residential Tenancy Act.
It’s also being welcomed by police as another tool to thwart criminal activity.
This legislation would complement criminal investigations that focus on individuals who cause fear and direct harm to families going about their daily lives, said Insp. Brad Haugli, president, B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police.
“Problem properties often occupy a disproportionate amount of police resources. Having new tools that compel property owners to be part of the solution will benefit public safety and police alike.”
Although the legislation has passed, staff have yet to be hired for the unit. That won’t happen until after the provincial election.
Hogarth, a councillor for the District of Maple Ridge, noted the new law once again targets property owners who are often unable to take action against tenants who disobey repeated warnings and eviction notices.
“The Residential Tenancy Act is silent on these types of criminal activities,” said Hogarth.
“[The new legislation] will just put more onus on the owners. It’s not going to where the real activity is – the individual who is perpetrating the crime, not the individual that gets caught up in it.”