COLUMN: Jaworski – Watch out for your property rights

- August 18th, 2012

Peter JaworskiFight property bylaw bullies

Invasive section of Ontario Municipal Act should be repealed

by Peter Jaworski

Did you know bylaw officers in Ontario can waltz onto your private property without your permission and without a warrant?

I’ve asked almost everyone I know, and a few strangers too, and the response I get is uniformly the same, “no, surely they can’t!” Oh, but they can.

Section 436 of the Ontario Municipal Act gives municipalities the power to pass bylaws that permit their officers to walk around in your backyard “at any reasonable time” to pursue an “investigation” stemming from a complaint. Or if the officer has a hunch that maybe you’re up to no good, erecting too large of a tent in your backyard or, God forbid, breaking some other persnickety bylaw regulation.

Section 436 is an affront to the values of privacy and control over our property, and should be repealed.

Bylaw officers and their allies might argue that it’s precisely because bylaws are comparatively minor that we shouldn’t worry so much about their power to send a burly man to go on your property when your children are home alone. After all, bylaw violations result in nothing more than a fine or penalty. Sometimes, depending on how neighbourly they are, just a warning.

This reasoning is precisely backwards. The less significant the offence, the more hoops an officer should have to jump through before being permitted to go on our property without our permission.

If the town bylaw officer sees flowers in the backseat of your car, wilting for want of a cool breeze, we would be outraged if he presumed to open your door and roll down a window. We would laugh in his face while calling the police if he were to say, “hey, wait, it’s no big deal! There’s no fine or penalty involved for letting your flowers wilt.” Few of us would object if, instead of flowers, an officer spotted a dog or a child in the backseat of a car suffering in the sweltering heat.

We wouldn’t object because compromising values like privacy and control over our property for something of equal or greater value is less objectionable than the reverse.

But bylaw offences are minor offences. Section 436 permits unreasonable searches, compromising our privacy and control over our property, for the sake of basically the equivalent of ensuring that flowers don’t wilt.

If bylaw officers and their allies argue that they must have this power to make bylaws effective, tell them to talk to Alberta. Section 542 of the Alberta Municipal Government Act requires that reasonable notice be given to the property owner or occupier of the land before any investigation or inspection takes place. As far as I can tell, municipalities in Alberta are not suffering from an uncontrollable explosion in kids flying kites in their backyards contrary to bylaw.

Giving “reasonable notice” is the absolute minimum that Ontario can do to respect our privacy.

Peter Jaworski teaches business ethics at Georgetown University. He will be speaking on the subject of bylaw bullies at the Canadian Property Rights Conference in Ottawa, Sept. 14-16.

Categories: Politics

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7 comments

  1. Stewiebusiness says:

    Just as police officers acting on an infraction in progress can enter private property to prusue an accused, so can bi-law. If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about. If you’re doing something against laws put in place for the comfort & safety of all citizens, enough to generate a complaint from a neighbour, you get a ticket. I thought this was a conservative blog…?

  2. Thomas_L...... says:

    “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.”

    You’re kidding right? Apparently, you’d be right at home in the Soviet Union or any totalitarian state with that viewpoint.

  3. Eric says:

    Stewiebusiness – you obviously don’t understand what it means to be conservative. You spout the typical statist line “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.” If you were a conservative, you would realize how foolish this kind of thinking is. Conservatives don’t want a nanny state – they take responsibility for themselves.

    You also don’t appear to have understood much of what was written in the article which does a good job of explaining why you are completely wrong.

    Police can enter without a warrant if they believe a crime is in progress – not just because they feel like it. Bylaws are not within the criminal code – which is why bylaw officers should be more restricted than the police, not less.

  4. shelley says:

    I agree with Stewiebusiness.

    By-laws are in place just like any other law. If there are noise issues (continuously) and dogs barking (incessantly) from neighbours then you should be able to call the police and have by-law officers go over and give fines. Same for any other by-law. Everyone should have a right to enjoy their property and neighbours should respect each other be considerate. Unfortunately in today’s society they are not and we have more by-laws that need enforcement.

  5. Barb R. says:

    “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.”

    Stewie, you didn’t just say that, did you? Really?

    So what you’re saying is that those of us who have done nothing wrong shouldn’t be worried that armed people (police) can enter our homes without being invited in or without a warrant. Maybe you enjoyed living in Nazi Germany in the 30s and 40s, but this is Canada. We believe in rule of law here. Well, at least some of us do ….

  6. Richard says:

    Hmmm, Stewie, sounds a lot like the mentality that led Britain to putting cameras in people’s homes to make sure kids go to bed on time and do their homework… No thanks. This is a libertarian post, not a neo-conservative post.

  7. Alain says:

    Sorry Stewiebusiness but you are full of it. The cops require a warrant and not the By-law “officers” and you don’t see a problem? I am fed up with the abuse of power by a never ending number of petty bureaucrats. We do actually have private property rights dating back in English Common Law, so this is an abuse of power and nothing more. I also would ask just what is not conservative about respecting private property rights?

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