09/23/2013 05:01 EDT | Updated 11/23/2013 05:12 EST

Chinatown booze cans in police crosshairs

Illegal after-hours bars in downtown Chinatown have been a long-standing problem for local police.

But police are now using a new tactic to combat booze cans and other illegal activities in the city by holding owners responsible for what happens on their properties.

Toronto police spent a better part of the summer focusing on Chinatown booze cans. But instead of going directly after operators of after-hours parties or clubs, police are approaching their landlords first now with the Civil Remedies Act. The act enables the police to seize the property if the landlords are aware of the crime but don’t do anything about it.

Last week police showcased stacks of seized items and cash worth about $2.1-million as a result of the new strategy.

The act, which has been in effect since 2001, and was upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada recently, provides statutory requirements to all owners of properties in the province to be responsible owners.

Chinatown booze cans have been a problem, but the police found themselves going in circles.

"Previously, what we typically did once we received complaints from local residents is to check them out, do raids, confiscate their stuff, arrest suspects," says Det.-Const. Dwayne King. "After a while, [the landlords would] rent it to another booze can operator, and another circle begins - there was never a permanent solution to the problem."

But then King and his team began using the Civil Remedies Act.

An example of how the act works was at 319 Spadina Ave. The police shut it down numerous times. But each time booze cans came back again, and there were more drugs, fights, a few stabbings, and so on.

"Instead of a raid, we went to the property owner directly, gave him written and verbal warnings about the possibility of forfeiture of the property if he didn't clean up," says King. "He was shocked when we told him about the act."

King says the owner of 319 Spadina did not believe the police had these powers.

"We had to show him the act," says King. "But within 24 hours, he kicked his tenants out and locked the door.”

Based on that one success, the police expanded the crackdown: they targeted a hotel in Scarborough and an illegal massage parlour downtown, among other places.

But they are not all success stories. Occasionally the owner is the operator of the illegal business, as is the case in one booze can in Etobicoke. Then police have to work with the Crown to administer the forfeiture of the property.

The challenges of course go beyond that.

"We don't want to abuse the act. We don't want to look like the only purpose is the forfeiture of the property," says King. "We want to make owners know as long as you are making progress, we can work out a plan."