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Booze bill called legally sound

Minister, police defend changes to liquor act

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The provincial government and police believe they're on solid legal ground when it comes to a proposed new law that gives police officers the power to seize alcohol from a booze can or kick a gang member out of a licensed bar or restaurant even though no crime has been committed.

And while the province says the new, pre-emptive legislation will be a first in Canada, its crafters say it's partly based on what already exists in Alberta and what's under consideration in British Columbia.

"We want to make sure that we are not infringing on anyone's individual rights," City of Winnipeg Minister Kevin Chief said Thursday outside a former party house on Boyd Avenue in the North End.

"At the same time, we want to respond to individuals from the community who say we need to take action to keep our communities safe."

North End resident Maria Starr said she and her family welcome the new police powers to close down party houses.

'We want to make sure that we are not infringing on anyone's individual rights' -- City of Winnipeg Minister Kevin Chief

"There's always the 'what ifs' when people are consuming alcohol," she said with her three children by her side. "If people know they can use this tool, police can come in and tragedies could be averted."

Police say the law will give them the ability to shut down chronic party houses and keep gang members in check -- removing the onus that's currently on frustrated neighbours or a restaurant owner who fears reprisals if they ask a gang member to leave the premises.

Winnipeg Police Service Staff Sgt. Kelly Dennison said the new law takes it up a notch from what's on the books in Alberta. Police in that province have had the authority to remove gang members from licensed establishments since 2010.

Manitoba's version will include known violent criminals and allow police to remove them if they believe there is a risk to public safety.

"It takes it a step further and deals with people who are involved in violent crime," Dennison said, adding police and Manitoba Justice have done their homework to ensure the proposed legislation withstands a court challenge.

"The research that went into this legislation was extensive. As in the Criminal Code or any legislation we deal with, people challenge it on a daily basis. All we can do is try to use this new legislation, interpret it properly, so we don't get that."

Dennison said the experience in Alberta in most situations is that gang members are aware of the law and leave a licensed premise voluntarily when approached by an officer.

Winnipeg has seen its share of gang-related slayings inside and outside downtown nightclubs during the past decade. Last February, William Edward Moar, 24, was shot dead at Johnny G's on Main Street in what justice sources said involved a dispute between rival gang members.

Manitoba Restaurant & Foodservices Association executive director Scott Jocelyn said he welcomes the proposed changes, but added he wants to see how it will be put into practice.

"The average employee gets to know their customers, but I don't think they're going to know, 'OK, that's a gang member,' " he said. "I don't know how you would know someone was trouble. You certainly wouldn't want to call police and say, 'Hey, I got a gut feeling.' "

Dennison also said with chronic party houses, police will be required to have information the location has a history of problems. "This isn't a one-shot deal," he said. "Just because somebody has a party at their house and phones the police, that doesn't give us the authority to infringe on somebody's rights and come into their house. We have to show a pattern."

The new measures are part of a push to modernize liquor laws and will be administered by the new Manitoba Liquor and Gaming Authority. The new act should be in place by 2014.

Dennison said the ability for police to close down party houses and seize alcohol is an improvement on Winnipeg's neighbourhood livability bylaw and the province's Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods Act. "Our community-support officers and our general-patrol guys that are going to the houses every night -- and let's be real, sometimes three and four times a night -- those are the houses we're talking about."

Does the measure give police too much discretion in who’s a gang member or a potential threat to public safety? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 1, 2013 A3

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