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Alberta moves to prevent lawsuits against homeowners protecting property

WATCH ABOVE: After weeks of town halls across the province, the Alberta government is revealing how it plans to combat rural crime.

Alberta is making changes to prevent homeowners from being sued if they injure people committing crimes on their property.

Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer says the government will be introducing the amendments to existing legislation and making them retroactive to the start of 2018.

“This is just the beginning of the steps we’re going to take to combat rural crime,” Schweitzer said Wednesday.

READ MORE: ‘People are pulling guns’: Alberta justice minister hears stories of frustration, vigilante acts on rural crime tour

Schweitzer didn’t link the change to the case of Edouard Maurice, but he says it’s a story he keeps hearing from rural Albertans talking about crime.

Maurice was charged after he shot and wounded an intruder who had been ransacking a truck on his property near Okotoks, south of Calgary, in February 2018.

The charges were eventually stayed. But the intruder, Ryan Watson, is suing Maurice for pain, suffering and lost wages. Maurice is counter-suing.

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READ MORE: Alberta man who fired warning shot at suspected thief facing lawsuit

Premier Jason Kenney has said the lawsuit against a law-abiding citizen trying to defend his property is an outrage. The premier also contributed to an online fund to help pay Maurice’s legal bills.

Schweitzer said the proposed change will provide safeguards for people protecting their properties, but the ban on a civil lawsuit would not apply if a homeowner is convicted in criminal court.

“(This) will strengthen Albertans’ rights to protect their security and property,” said Schweitzer.

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“These measures will ensure that a criminal trespasser has no right of civil action against a law-abiding property owner who is defending their property and family.”

The ban was one of a number of initiatives Schweitzer announced. He said they reflect feedback he has received at town-hall discussions about crime in rural areas.

UCP plan for rural crime includes specially-trained peace officers to help RCMP
UCP plan for rural crime includes specially-trained peace officers to help RCMP

He said the government will also be changing the roles of 400 peace officers, including fish and wildlife officers, traffic sheriffs, and those in the commercial vehicle enforcement branch.

The plan is to give them more training so they can assist police on emergency calls in rural areas starting next fall.

Sheriffs and wildlife officers currently carry firearms and Schweitzer said the plan is to arm commercial vehicle officers as well.

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“(This is) to assist the RCMP and other police services to ensure security is deployed in response to 911 calls more quickly and effectively.”

NDP Justice critic Kathleen Ganley said her concern is that peace officers will be asked to take on more work on top of important duties they already have.

“We’re not seeing additional boots on the ground,'” said Ganley.

“It’s all very well to say that fish and wildlife officers can respond to calls, but that doesn’t alter their arrest powers.

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“(And) they were already doing work … that we’ve heard from municipal and rural communities needed to be done, and, in fact, they needed more of.”

READ MORE: Alberta government suggests small rural areas pay for policing: NDP

Ganley said she might be OK with the ban on civil lawsuits, but wants to see details of the proposed changes first.

Among the other changes proposed by Schweitzer are new rules to compel scrap metal dealers to keep track of who sells to them so as to combat criminals who steal and sell scrap metal and copper wire.

He also wants community groups to be able to submit victim impact statements at sentencing hearings to outline how communities suffer from crime.

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The government will also move to provide more help to anyone trying to collect outstanding payments on restitution orders.