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New act to crack down on crack houses

New legislation may give the government power to shut down illegal operations like crack houses, sniff houses, prostitution dens and booze cans in…

New legislation may give the government power to shut down illegal operations like crack houses, sniff houses, prostitution dens and booze cans in the territory.

Under the proposed safer communities and neighbourhoods legislation, based on similar acts that have cleaned up the streets in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the territory could evict the lawbreakers and shut down the shops.

Currently the RCMP can search locations and charge individuals, but not shut down properties, which allows operations to fester by simply replacing dealers or prostitutes.

The legislation is being drafted by the territory.

Citizens and community groups can influence the proposed law at a public meeting tonight at 7 p.m. at the High Country Inn.

Representatives from Saskatchewan and Manitoba will be there to answer questions about how the program works in their provinces.

So far, the results have been staggering.

Manitoba adopted safer communities legislation in April 2002. Since then, the program has shut down 143 operations, many of them bases for multiple illegal activities.

“The feedback we get from residents is phenomenal — it’s on the level of giving them back their lives,” said Manitoba’s public safety investigations’ manager Al Cameron from Winnipeg.

The only negative feedback has been from drug dealers, he added.

In four years the province received a total 919 complaints — 822 about drugs, 272 about prostitution, 51 about solvent abuse, nine about non-potable substance abuse (like drinking mouthwash) and 38 about booze cans, which are after-hours alcohol sales.

One hundred and ninety three of the complaints resulted in closing down 120 drug dens, 52 prostitution rings, 22 spots for solvent abusers and five sites where non-potables were being abused.

So far, no bootleggers have been put out of business.

Police knew about many of the houses that were closed down in Manitoba.

“It’s designed to target those residences that have been a thorn in the side of the community for a long time,” said Cameron.

He cited a well-known crack house in Winnipeg that had been around for well over 10 years.

The police made numerous arrests and executed a number of search warrants, but the drug dealing and prostitution persisted.

“They would just bring new members of the gang in and the activities never ceased,” explained Cameron. “Under this legislation we were able to close that place down once and for all and, for the first time in more than a decade, residents have had the opportunity to peacefully enjoy their neighbourhoods … that community is overjoyed.”

Saskatchewan modeled its program, which took effect in January 2005, on Manitoba’s.

“Early indications are nothing but positive,” said Saskatchewan’s executive director of law enforcement services Murray Sawatsky.

“We’re seeing some good things. We’re getting comments from citizens who are saying thank you, there’s been an ongoing problem in this neighbourhood and you’ve moved it out of here.”

And citizens, who were afraid in their own homes, aren’t afraid anymore, he said.

In its first year, the province received a total of 305 complaints, resulting in 69 evictions, said Sawatsky.

Although most calls involve more than one offence, 81 per cent are drug related, 12 per cent have to do with prostitution and the remaining eight per cent involve gang activity, stolen property, illegal alcohol and weapons.

The act’s protocol in both provinces is similar.

A neighbour complains about illegal activities, starting a chain of events that could lead to an eviction.

The complainant’s name is kept confidential — protected from freedom of information requests and judge’s orders — and, if the matter goes to court, the province becomes the complainant.

“Obviously that’s a very important part, when you’re dealing with crack houses you’re usually dealing with dangerous individuals and the public has to be protected first,” said Cameron.

First, the department conducts background checks on the property and calls the police for information.

Then investigators watch the place for days and videotape everything they see.

“With a drug house what we look for is the traffic to the location and late-night visitors that are only inside for one or two minutes. Often the transactions take place outside the house,” said Cameron.

To take action on an operation, investigators must show the activities are habitual and show they have an adverse effect on the community.

Because it’s civil legislation, the only proof required is a balance of probabilities — investigators must be able to say the illegal activity is more likely happening than not happening — it’s different than what’s needed in a criminal offence, which requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Next, the department sends the landowner a warning letter to try and resolve the problem informally.

If that fails, the government can apply for a community safety order to shut down the property.

Manitoba has only gone to court once — in the remaining 142 cases the property owners complied, and worked with the province to turf out the drug dealers.

“The act doesn’t empower us to take away the property, what we can do is shut down the property, board it up, turn off utilities and name individuals who can’t re-attend to that property,” explained Cameron.

The Justice department does not arrest or charge people, but in Manitoba the police have made 82 arrests based on information supplied by the department.

In November, the Yukon legislature voted, unanimously, to bring forward safer communities and neighbourhoods legislation in the 2006 spring sitting.

The legislation will have a shorter consultation process than the usual 18-month term, said Yukon Justice spokesperson Dan Cable.

Since the government wants to bring it forward in this spring’s sitting, the input period will be scaled down to seven weeks beginning with tonight’s public meeting.