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Landlords Are Supposed to Enforce Laws That Cops Can't

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Over the past 14 years, eight of Canada's ten provinces (the exceptions are PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador) have quietly deputized landlords -- figuratively speaking -- to assist them with law enforcement.

This dubious honour doesn't come with a shiny deputy's badge as in days of yore; nor do landlords get a pay cheque for their efforts. On the contrary, it costs them money to fulfill this duty. And if they fail in their task, they are not simply fired, as a bad police officer might be. Rather, they are punished by having their real estate confiscated without compensation.

That's what happened to Marlowe and Patricia Van Dusen of Chatham, Ontario. They bought a 12-unit residential apartment building in 1995, as one of 23 buildings they eventually came to own and manage. The building at 51 Taylor Avenue apparently attracted the type of tenant found all too often in low-rentals: petty criminals. Tenants in four of the 12 units were dealing drugs, trafficking in stolen goods, probably selling sex, and generally intimidating and threatening the neighbourhood. They were an unsavoury bunch with criminal records that included violent crimes.

The police documented 392 "occurrences" over the period of 12 years that the Van Dusens controlled the property. From 2002 to 2007, police executed 21 search warrants, arrested 49 people, and laid 119 charges. But the police and the courts couldn't -- or perhaps simply wouldn't -- keep the criminals in jail long enough to eliminate the illegal activity going on at 51 Taylor Avenue. In fact, it got progressively worse despite virtually daily attendances by police.

In 2007, Ontario froze the property under the Civil Remedies Act, the law that strong-arms unwilling landlords into becoming law enforcement agents. The province alleged the building was an "instrument of unlawful activity".

A judge ruled in 2012 that the Van Dusens would forfeit the property permanently to the province. They were not "responsible owners" because they hadn't made sufficient efforts to evict the problem tenants. Indeed, one witness even testified -- and produced supporting photographs allegedly proving it -- that he had seen Marlowe Van Dusen buying illegal drugs himself.

Maybe so, but if the province was able to muster that kind of evidence for the purposes of a civil forfeiture trial, why didn't it just charge Van Dusen and the drug dealer, and put them both in jail?

Why did the province expect Mr. Van Dusen, at his own time and expense, to take eviction proceedings against the very individuals that the police themselves, with the courts and the laws and vast resources at their disposal, couldn't manage to convict?

At least when police come to arrest people, they can come en masse, wearing Kevlar vests and carrying firearms. Mr. Van Dusen couldn't legally protect or arm himself like that when he walked into his building. He had to be there frequently, alone, maintaining the property for the sake of both good tenants and bad. Who can blame him if he preferred to avoid serving eviction notices on tenants who had histories of violence, and then confronting them repeatedly both in and out of court?

Nevertheless, the judge allowed the province to confiscate the building -- worth about $400,000 and mortgage-free. The Ontario Court of Appeal confirmed the decision, and the Supreme Court of Canada refused leave to appeal further.

So the Van Dusens were punished for failing to do the job that the police and the courts couldn't do either.

The building was sold a few weeks ago, and the money will go into the pot of forfeited funds that the Attorney General's office keeps under the Civil Remedies Act. Don't be surprised if a grant is made to the Chatham-Kent police service, to reward them for their work in securing this windfall for provincial coffers.

The local police chief has been patting his staff on the back for a job well done, but he's just kidding himself. If the police and the courts didn't actually incarcerate the hoodlums for a long, long time, they have simply moved the problem out of 51 Taylor Avenue and into someone else's neighbourhood. And if they did incarcerate the hoodlums for a long time, then there was no need to steal the Van Dusens' property.

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