Debate raging over right to defend property
Foothills: Use of force only allowed against threat of death or bodily harm
Wednesday, Mar 07, 2018 09:43 am
Stand and defend or don’t confront, it’s an increasingly common question in rural areas in the wake of rising crime rates.
Charges laid against an Okotoks-area man after he allegedly discharged a firearm after encountering two individuals rummaging through his vehicles on Feb. 24 have sparked fierce debate over just how far people can go to defend their property.
Cory Morgan, a Priddis-area business owner and resident, said he doesn’t want “vigilanteeism”, but people should be empowered to defend themselves.
“As much as is reasonably required to get them off your property,” he said. “But that’s difficult to tell at the time because you don’t know when they’re rummaging through your property if they’re going to stop there or if they’re going break into your house next or assault you next.
“When you confront those people, things could escalate. The benefit of the doubt should land on the property owner.”
Edouard Maurice is set to appear in Okotoks Provincial Court on March 9 to face charges of aggravated assault, pointing a firearm and careless use of a firearm in relation to a Feb. 24 incident on his property.
Morgan is one of many who have come to Maurice’s defence. An online fundraising campaign was started to contribute to his legal costs and a rally has been called for March 9 outside of Okotoks Provincial Court to support Maurice.
“We are seeing a young man who has a wife and two kids and may be facing a good few years in jail all for protecting his property and I doubt he really wanted to hurt anybody,” he said. “He just wanted to keep his place safe.”
RCMP Cpl. Curtis Peters said people are not allowed to use lethal force in defence of property.
“Lethal force can only be used in a situation where you fear for death and grievous bodily harm of yourself or someone else,” he said. “That’s it, you don’t get to shoot people for stealing.”
Doug King, Mount Royal University professor of justice studies, said there is an inaccurate perception among many that people can use force to protect property.
While the criminal code allows a person to use force, where reasonable, to prevent a criminal offence, King said the question centres on whether it’s reasonable.
“The notion of reasonableness is not in the mind of the person who used the force, it ultimately will be in the mind or assessment of a judge or jury,” he said.
Even firing a warning shot can find a person in hot water, he said.
King said he appreciates that people in rural areas feel under siege.
In the MD of Foothills, the number of property crimes is up over the last four years, while crimes against persons have remained stable.
“I can empathize with the feeling that some people have in rural Alberta, rural Saskatchewan that they’re out there alone,” said King.
He said rural areas are under-policed and response times are longer than in urban centres.
“I think we have to start bolstering the number of police officers in rural areas,” said King.
Blackie-area farmer Phil Rowland said the average person would try to avoid a confrontation, but if a situation was bad enough many would do what was necessary to defend their family.
“I can tell you that being confronted, being scared and knowing that your family is at risk, it’s amazing what people can and will do to protect their family,” he said.
As for defending property, Rowland said it’s still a sensitive issue for rural residents and farmers such as himself.
“Everything in my yard I use to make a living with,” he said.
Adam Schneider, a rural resident south of Okotoks, said personal safety is more important than protecting property. A former Alberta Sheriff, he said the last thing someone should do is use a firearm.
“If you just run out shooting, that’s the wrong way to go about it,” said Schneider. “There’s all kinds of things that can go wrong.”
He said people need to know anyone who is willing to steal someone else’s property is potentially capable of violence. He said people should maintain distance from them and avoid a physical confrontation wherever possible.
“Challenging a trespasser is a matter of using your confidence and your voice and projecting that you own this property,” he said. “It’s not a matter of approaching and physically defending. If it gets to that, it’s already gone to far.”
A bail hearing for a man found with a wound in his arm after the Feb. 24 incident near Okotoks was to be held in Calgary on March 6.
Ryan Watson is charged with trespassing by night, mischief to property, theft over $5,000 from a motor vehicle, possession of methamphetamine, and two counts of failure to comply with probation.
Watson appeared in Okotoks court via closed circuit TV on March 2 when he agreed to adjourn a bail hearing to March 6 in Calgary Court. The decision from the bail hearing was not available before Western Wheel press time.