New provincial efforts to tackle rural crime, while shielding landowners protecting their property from lawsuits, were applauded by Lacombe County representatives.
“These will help,” said Lacombe County Reeve Paula Law, of the initiatives that include higher trespassing fines and efforts to reduce 911 call response times.
“I don’t think it’s a quick fix that we’re looking for,” said Law. “But every little bit helps. It’s such a multi-pronged issue that the answers have to come from different areas.”
Among a raft of measures announced by the province this week, was changes to the Occupiers’ Liability Act —retroactive to Jan. 1, 2018 — preventing offenders from suing landowners.
Justice Minister and Solicitor General Doug Schweitzer also said trespassers will now face higher fines and possible jail time on any rural property, whether it’s residential, commercial or industrial.
Fines will increase to $10,000 from $2,000 for a first-time offence and $25,000 for subsequent offences.
Offenders could also face up to six months in prison. Corporations that help or direct trespassers can be fined up to $200,000 — an initiative aimed at the sort of trespassing protests that happened at a chicken farm in southern Alberta recently.
“I think it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” said Coun. Ken Wigmore on Thursday. “I guess we’ll see how it all plays out in the long run.
“But there needed to be some changes, because the way it’s been in the past, it seems like the people committing the crimes have all the rights, and the landowner and homeowner have no rights,” said Wigmore, who is president of the Red Deer-Lacombe Rural Crime Watch Association.
“We definitely needed to make some changes somewhere along the line, so when you chase these guys off, or hold them until the police come, that you’re not charged with some criminal activity and you’ve got to spend all of your money in court.”
Wigmore said some of the frustration in rural areas is due to confusion over what rights property owners have to defend themselves.
Rural angst was highlighted by the case of Eddie Maurice, who was charged after a suspected thief was wounded on his property on Feb. 24, 2018.
The prosecutor dropped the charge, but then Maurice faced a civil lawsuit by one of the intruders who claimed he was injured by one of Maurice’s warning shots.
Wigmore is skeptical higher fines will do much to stop most trespassers.
“It might ( have an impact) on activist groups, but it’s not going to have any impact on the criminals who go on to people’s property. They don’t have any money anyway. If they had any money, they wouldn’t be out stealing yours and mine.
“It’s not going to faze them, and as the RCMP tell you, most of the time, the criminal beats them out of the courthouse.”
Wigmore said he sees potential in drug courts, which aim to direct drug addict criminals towards help rather than throwing them behind bars.
Restorative justice measures, where convicted criminals are put to work giving back to the community in some way, may also be part of the solution, he said.
The province also plans to trim 911 response times, partly by calling on Alberta sheriffs, fish and wildlife officers and commercial vehicle enforcement officers to more actively assist RCMP and other police forces.