The Alberta government is introducing legislation to protect landowners from being sued if they injure someone while using force to defend their property.
The legislation follows the case of a man in Okotoks, south of Calgary, who shot an intruder on his property, only to be sued by the perpetrator. The case has become a flash-point in the debates about rural crime and property rights, which have been central issues for Alberta’s United Conservative government.
Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer outlined the change to the law as part of a series of legislative and policy measures designed to address rural crime, which he described as a crisis affecting the entire province.
Under the revised law, landowners who lawfully use force to defend their properties against trespassers who are, or are believed to be, committing a crime would not face civil liability. It would not apply to landowners who commit a crime themselves – in other words, if they use an unreasonable level of force.
The law is retroactive to Jan. 1, 2018, which would protect the Okotoks landowner, Edouard (Eddie) Maurice, from a lawsuit related to an incident that happened in February of last year.
“Every rural Albertan can relate to Eddie Maurice,” Mr. Schweitzer told a news conference in a rural area in Wetaskiwin County, south of Edmonton.
“We need to make sure we protect property rights and the vulnerability of Albertans to make sure that they’re not victimized by criminals on their own property.”
Court records have indicated that Mr. Maurice fired a warning shot after discovering a pair of suspected thieves on his property. The bullet hit one of them, Ryan Watson, in the arm.
Mr. Maurice was charged with aggravated assault and weapons offences, which prompted outrage among supporters, who protested outside court. Crown prosecutors stayed the charges a few months later.
Mr. Watson then filed a lawsuit that alleged Mr. Maurice was negligent when he fired the rifle and sought damages for physical injuries, post-traumatic stress and loss of income.
An online fundraising campaign to support Mr. Maurice brought in tens of thousands of dollars, including from Premier Jason Kenney, who donated $100 and encouraged others to do the same.
Mr. Watson pleaded guilty in February to mischief and breaching probation.
Vancouver lawyer Eric Gottardi, the past chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s criminal justice section, said the legislation could encourage landowners to use force. He noted that in self-defence cases, it’s difficult for someone to know what level of force would be considered reasonable.
“Any time you can defend your property with a weapon, especially a firearm, you’re running a risk that you’re going to be charged criminally,” he said in an interview.
Still, he said it makes sense to clarify that landowners who act lawfully can’t be held liable in civil cases.
“The flip side of that is, if you are justified in defending your property and you’re found not guilty or the police in the Crown decide that charges aren’t warranted, then you’re protected from a litigious offender," he said. "In that sense, it’s probably a good thing.”
The debates about rural crime on the Prairies and the limits of self-defence were ignited by the trial of Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley. Mr. Stanley was charged after he shot and killed Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Indigenous man, in August, 2016. He was later acquitted by a jury.
Mr. Stanley testified that he was attempting to scare a group of people off his property when the gun accidentally went off.
With a file from The Canadian Press