Mission Resident Sues Over Safety Inspections

A Mission man who says district officials searched his home thinking he had a marijuana grow-op and then stuck him with a $5,200 bill has filed a class-action lawsuit against the Fraser Valley municipality.

Stacy Gowanlock submitted a statement of claim on Wednesday after a news conference in downtown Vancouver. Mr. Gowanlock, a father of six, said District of Mission safety inspectors entered his home in September, 2009, to investigate higher than normal hydro use.

That inspection failed to turn up a drug lab. All officials found was an incorrectly wired hot tub and an attic they said – without evidence, Mr. Gowanlock told reporters – could have been used to grow marijuana.

Mr. Gowanlock said he’s heard from about 200 residents who have been through similar ordeals and were left without any form of redress. Some lost their homes after district officials notified their mortgage holders or insurance companies that the house could be used for a grow-op, others were embarrassed in their communities when signs related to the inspections were put up on their houses, or found that their names had been entered into police records.

“The district has attached a stigma to us as residents,” Mr. Gowanlock said. “The launch of the class-action lawsuit was the last thing we wanted to burden the community with, but we now know it’s the only remaining step we have left as citizens in trying to recover our losses and, more importantly, fixing something that is very wrong.”

Mr. Gowanlock was joined at the news conference by Micheal Vonn, policy director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. The BCCLA is supporting the lawsuit, although Mr. Gowanlock’s lawyer is arguing the case. Two plaintiffs are involved to date. Ms. Vonn said it’s difficult to predict how many people will join, or the total dollar value of the lawsuit. She said the BCCLA has heard from several dozen people.

The class-action lawsuit must still be certified by the B.C. Supreme Court.

Mission passed a controlled substance property bylaw in 2009 that allows safety inspectors to enter homes they believe contain grow-ops based on abnormal energy consumption. Mission is one of 10 Lower Mainland municipalities with such legislation.

Jenny Stevens, a Mission city councillor, voted in favour of the bylaw because it was presented as a way to address health and safety issues. At the time, the district had seen a number of fires linked to grow-ops.

“There were a great many grow-ops, more than the police could tackle, and the level of evidence the police needed before they could go in is very high. Frankly, honestly, it had never crossed my mind that we would have this sort of consequence,” she said.

Ms. Stevens said a review is under way of all cases in which residents were billed the $5,200 inspection fee. The size of the fee is also being examined, and the review should be complete by the end of May. But how the review, or any revisions to the bylaw, will affect those who have been billed remains unclear. The BCCLA made submissions on possible remedies last fall, but Ms. Vonn said they fell on deaf ears.

A district spokesman declined comment on the matter because it’s before the courts. He said the Public Safety Inspection Program, as it’s known, has been shut down since January. Since then, RCMP enter homes suspected of containing grow-ops.

The statement of claim accuses the district of communicating false reports to third parties, including the plaintiffs’ mortgage holders and property insurers. The damage claims range from invasion of privacy to expenses, lost reputation, and diminished market value of homes.

“[The BCCLA heard] stories of children who were no longer allowed to play with other children in the playground based on these unfounded allegations that their parents were manufacturing drugs in their residence,” Ms. Vonn said. She added that inspectors ripped up parts of some homes, ordered power cut, and put up brightly coloured signs saying the homes contained marijuana grow operations.

Mr. Gowanlock said he believes that he had difficulty getting into the United States last October because his name was red-flagged in police records. He was flying from Seattle to Boston and got to the border crossing in what he thought was plenty of time. He was held up at customs for five hours, with U.S. border officials combing through his car and luggage.

“We were allowed to go through. But it’s an experience I probably won’t want to endure again,” he said.

Ms. Stevens said it’s a “tragedy” citizens have had to resort to suing their municipality.

– Article from The Globe and Mail.

B.C. Civil Liberties Supports Class Action Against Residential Grow-Op Inspections in Mission

By Neal Hall, Vancouver Sun

Some residents hit with $5,200 fee although no marijuana found

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association is supporting a classaction lawsuit filed Wednesday against the district of Mission over residential inspections for suspected marijuana grow operations.

Mission’s controversial Controlled Substances Property Bylaw has resulted in home owners being wrongfully charged with violations of the bylaw, even though no marijuana-growing operation was found in their residences.

“We have had dozens of complaints,” said Micheal Vonn, policy director of the BCCLA. “The process is fundamentally unfair.”

Mission suspended the bylaw last January after complaints from residents who were hit with hefty fines for small safety violations but did not have grow operations in their homes.

Resident Len Gratto, for example, was billed $5,200 for an inspection that found he was growing flowers and cucumbers in the basement of his Mission home.

Another resident, Stacy Gowanlock, was slapped with a $5,200 fee after his house was inspected in 2009. No marijuana plants were found. He is part of the proposed classaction lawsuit filed by Vancouver lawyer Alexander Markham-Zantvoort.

“The citizens of Mission have tried for years to get the district to properly review these decisions and fix this program,” Gowanlock said. “It’s clear the district is not moving on this, so we have to ask the courts to remedy the damage.”

Some residents hit with $5,200 fines feel they have had their reputations ruined. At least one has lost their home after the bank learned of the violation enforcement by Mission, Vonn said.

“It goes on title and the property is devalued,” Vonn explained Tuesday, adding some people have had trouble crossing into the U.S. because the bylaw violation becomes part of the person’s criminal history.

“The fallout has been extremely serious,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many people have broken down crying because they have violated the bylaw but were innocent.”

She said the bylaw is unfair because residents don’t have any process of appeal.

“It’s the imaginary grow-op bylaw,” Vonn said.

She said the Mission bylaw is supposed to enforce safety inspections of homes and flows from the provincial Safety Standards Act, which allows hydro companies to disclose high users of electricity to municipalities.

“We’ve had long-standing concerns about the safety inspections themselves,” Vonn said. “It’s not about safety -it’s about looking for drug operations.”

Safety inspections were not supposed to be an “end-run” around the police need for a search warrant to look for a suspected drug operations, she said.

“These are very new programs and new areas of law,” Vonn said.

– Article originally from The Vancouver Sun.