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Hydro fights RCMP on power records

By buseman, Jun 1, 2010 | |
  1. buseman
    North Vancouver RCMP have backed off on a request that would have forced BC Hydro to turn over the records of more than a thousand North Vancouver homeowners using large amounts of power to police.

    On Thursday, at a closed-door hearing in North Vancouver provincial court, the federal department of justice withdrew the request for the Hydro records after facing a court challenge by the power authority.

    BC Hydro filed a petition in B.C. Supreme Court this month fighting the request after a North Vancouver judge ordered the power company to hand over a list of residential addresses to police of anyone in North Vancouver whose power consumption averaged more than 93 kilowatt hours per day.

    Details about why the North Vancouver RCMP made the unusual request have been sealed by the court, but are believed to involve a search for potential marijuana growing operations, which typically use large amounts of electricity.

    BC Hydro asked for a judicial review of the decision, arguing the order was too broad.

    In an affidavit filed in court, the power company expressed concern that the order could end up forcing it to hand over records of law-abiding citizens and subjecting them to a police investigation even though there is little likelihood they are involved in marijuana grow-ops.

    Scott Macdonald, privacy manager at BC Hydro, wrote that for the month of February 2010 alone there were 1,115 residences in North Vancouver using electricity over the threshold set in the court order. In winter months, province-wide up to 100,000 Hydro customers who use electrical space heaters would normally use more than 93 kWh of electricity each day, wrote Macdonald.

    Even in summer, many luxury residences with swimming pools, fountains, greenhouses or medium to large pumps also consume in excess of 93 kWh per day, wrote Macdonald.

    Const. Michael McLaughlin, spokesman for the North Vancouver RCMP, said Friday the department is aware the court order compelling B.C. Hydro to produce the records has now been revoked and we are certainly going to respect that decision, he said.

    McLaughlin refused to comment specifically on why the detachment's drug section made the request.

    But McLaughlin acknowledged the RCMP were trying out a new approach to nabbing criminals.

    The RCMP and its members have many tools to investigate drug operations. We wouldn't be doing our jobs if we didn't look for new avenues (of investigation), he said. This was one of those explorations into a new avenue.

    McLaughlin added production orders are routinely granted by the courts for police to access to banking and phone records in the course of their investigations. Most of those, however, are narrower in scope.

    Brent Olthuis, a lawyer who recently represented the B.C. Civil Liberties Association in challenging warrantless searches of suspected grow-ops by municipal inspectors, said he was surprised at the broad scope of the North Vancouver production order.

    I'd be quite surprised and I think my client would be alarmed at such a production order being sought in the first place, let alone being granted, he said.

    We'd expect the police to seek orders that are closely tailored in their scope, not something so broad ranging as this.

    But McLaughlin said law-abiding citizens shouldn't be unduly worried -- even if they use a lot of power.

    The police are not going for a legitimate citizen with a hot tub. We're going for criminals, he said. We wouldn't be using this tool if we didn't think it was pointing us to criminal behaviour versus someone using a lot of power.

    McLaughlin said he's seen some figures that point to some grow-ops as using more than 17 times the power that would be expected at a normal home, although you do get into the area of what's normal and what's not, he said.

    McLaughlin said he couldn't speculate on whether the RCMP would be putting in another similar request for Hydro records to the court.

    Recently the B.C. Court of Appeal struck down part of a provincial law that allowed municipal inspectors to search for electrical problems that may be related marijuana grow-ops without warrants.

    Inspectors can still monitor homes for spikes in hydro consumption however.

    Jane Seyd, North Shore News
    May 30, 2010


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