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Your home may be your castle — but if the city assessor comes knocking, the city wants the drawbridge down and the gates open.

And while the City of St. John’s thinks that’s no big deal — Coun. Danny Breen says it’s basically business as usual — there are plenty of people who don’t agree.

The Supreme Court of Canada has been pretty clear that even walking into someone’s yard requires a warrant. Consider this, from R. vs Riley in 1993.

“Two officers went to determine the exact location of the reported residence. They entered onto the property and noted vents on the outside of the house with condensation on them and the smell of fresh marihuana emanating from them. … The warrantless perimeter search of the accused’s residence was unreasonable and therefore in violation of (Section) 8 of the Charter. A warrantless search, to be reasonable, must be authorized by law.”

Or, the court’s verdict in R. vs Feeney in 1997: “In general, the privacy interest now outweighs the interest of the police, and warrantless arrests in dwelling houses are prohibited.”

Those cases involved a hydroponic marijuana grow-op and a murder investigation, far more serious issues than the city’s concerns about whether you have a finished rec room downstairs that they can tax you for.

Section 7 of this province’s Assessment Act does, in fact, let the assessor in: “An assessor or a commissioner may, at reasonable times, without a warrant, enter real property for the purpose of carrying out a duty imposed on the assessor or commissioner by this Act and a person shall not refuse entry to the assessor or commissioner.”

What hasn’t been mentioned by Breen or anyone else is that the Act’s powers go much further than that. Try Section 8, which says a property owner “shall provide to the assessor on demand conveyances, leases, assignments, appraisals and other deeds and documents and books, accounts, vouchers and insurance policies in his or her possession or control that the assessor may require for the purpose of valuing that real property for taxation.”

Tenants can be forced to outline what they pay their landlords, and what it is they’re paying for.

Municipalities argue they need that kind of power to make sure that the city is aware of changes inside a property.

The problem is, the same Act already requires you to report those changes, even without the inspection.

“23. (1) A person who … alters, erects, constructs, extends, enlarges or makes an addition to real property … shall, within 30 days from the day on which the person completed altering, erecting, constructing, extending, enlarging or making an addition to real property, or started or resumed a business, give written notice to the clerk setting out the address of that real property or business. (2) The clerk shall notify the assessor, who shall, upon receipt of a notice under subsection (1) or on his or her own initiative where no notice is received by him or her, assess the real property described in subsection (1).”

There’s a growing battle in this country over new laws allowing police warrantless access to your computer traffic, so no one should be surprised that there’s an uproar over the city wanting to take pictures of the inside of your house and store them in its own database.

Here’s another question: assessments are supposed to be equal, but assessors won’t be asking to go into every house. So what exactly ensures that the assessment process is fair and equal?

Perhaps cities and town should stick to assessing the outside of castles.

Organizations: Supreme Court of Canada, Charter

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Recent comments

  • Marilyn G.
    May 29, 2014 - 20:48

    They are most certainly not coming into my house without a search warrant. Plus, it must be clear to anyone with any logical thinking skills that the Supreme Court of Canada's legal precedents far outweigh anything a municipal government sets as a legal precedent. In such matters, the SCoC would have final jurisdiction.

  • Police State
    May 29, 2014 - 16:05

    Councillor Breen says the city rarely enforces its right to demand entry to your house. But is he aware the assessors are not above using the written threat of legal enforcement to ensure compliance. At a minimum, you will lose your right to appeal an excessive assessment if you do not let the assessors in, in advance, and provide them with whatever documentation they demand. Blackmail and intimidation, pure and simple.

  • Gary
    May 29, 2014 - 13:01

    Conflating criminal case law and civil statute law is an error no first-year law student would make. The assessor can't arrest anyone and he can't gather evidence admissible at a trial that might be held if, for example, he found a grow-op inside a house. Having a municipal official pop in every so often isn't a bad idea. Too many landlords and homeowners get away with leaving properties in a dangerous condition, or making changes without permits or inspections. Property tax fraud is a problem, and I'm happy to hand over my lease and utility bills if it helps make sure my landlady is paying her fair share.

    • Maggy Carter
      May 29, 2014 - 14:16

      Sorry to burst your bubble Gary but there are no chinese walls between civil and criminal law. Enforcement of the former can easily lead to charges under the latter. Information obtained in the course of a municipal inspection of a private residence can form the basis of an ITO on which a warrant can be issued to search that residence. In your specific example, information relating to the existence of a grow-op can be shared with police authorities. The courts have rejected warrantless inspections of homes by non-policing authorities, in part, for that reason - because it would enable other agencies to do on behalf of police that which the police are constrained from doing in their own right.

  • Maggy Carter
    May 29, 2014 - 08:19

    In R. v Bichel, Court of Appeal of British Columbia (1986), the court ruled that any warrantless search of residential premises constituted a violation of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The case arose from a homeowner's refusal of access to municipal inspectors for the purpose of determining whether the premises contained an unauthorized suite. The city solicitor in St. John's is well aware that the section of the Assessment Act purporting to authorize such inspections is unenforceable. Nor should it be. It would constitute a gross invasion of privacy. As reported in yesterday's Telegram, the CFIB has concluded that St. John's is among the worst offenders in Canada for unnecessary and irresponsible spending of taxpayer funds. Mr. Breen's readiness to endorse such storm-trooper tactics shows a serious lack of judgement. What residents of St. John's are witnessing now is the bravado and arrogance of a new re-elected government. It is a truism that the willingness of governments to trample the rights of its citizens is inversely related to the proximity of the next election.

  • Too Funny
    May 29, 2014 - 07:44

    Papers! Open zee door. I vont to zee your papers. "Shall not refuse entry" ... "provide the assessor on demand". Both of these phrases seem to say that the assessor must first make contact with you. Then I guess you can't be accused of refusing their demands if they can't contact you..

  • guy incognito
    May 29, 2014 - 07:07

    Obviously Breen doesn't/didn't know what he was talking about. Which is about par for the course with Doc and friends. There is precedent for this type of thing. If some yahoo from council showed up at my door thee wouldn't be getting any further....

  • Who respects Danny Breen's Square Glasses?
    May 29, 2014 - 05:09

    Legislation aside, it is right to announce a visit to someone’s home; it is cheaper to plan these assessments over time and schedule visits than 'pop' in. It is more economical to plan a meeting, than stalk the water-cooler all morning, or drive the streets for chance encounters. Breen is using the 'grandmother-popping-in-effect' on you collectively, with help from an idle, bored, underfunded staff of reporters desperate for fodder in lieu of investigative work. The media can play off of all this, gauge the comments and keep people off balance and complaining. Their job. Marihuana is about control. None of you will be smoking Marijuana much longer with open gov. marihuana problems will likely become the subject of conspiracy. "What is the private, hand-selected government-controlled producers putting in this legal high? Be careful. They might use this to 'take care' of Vets, to save money. This is why they want doctors to be careful. Think about it. They ruined Screech with state meddling. You had to go get liquor from the doctor one time, and harmless near beer at 2% was it. The elite lawyers/doctors/judges who use THC to make themselves human for 1/2 an hour will not be barged in on for an assessment, will they?, and will not be on the same marihuana strain as vets? This is my totally off the cuff, paranoid opinion. Why doesn't the city take out a giant loan, put the colonial building up for collateral, buy all these houses that they must have, that they need nearly real-time basement, bar & shed data on, and make them rental properties, then, instead of riding the 2018 real estate bubble, they can burst with it, and protect residents. Better to have gov wiped out, and start over, than purge the community. If this paper and city fathers were anymore transparent in their coercion and subterfuge, they could come visit our home at their leisure. We'd never know. Just come out and be honest Danny Breen. Who respects you? Oh my God, the trees, the trees, the Beothuk bones, oh my. Let's forget our immediate freedom and responsibility toward the living to protect dead stuff in the name of indignitaries? Don't let puny weak GOVERNMENTS turn you toward violence, or even bad language. Find the polite words for F-off and dissent, defy and master these characterless wimps who court power like a 6 year old copying ice pans.

    • Mike
      May 29, 2014 - 06:45

      Couldn't understand a word of what you wrote until your reference to marijuana and screech. That sort of explained it I think.