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Alberta sheriffs, fish and wildlife officers to gain new powers under proposed rural crime plan

The Alberta government announced Wednesday a multi-faceted approach to protect rural landowners from criminal activity.

'Our goal is to provide the strongest protection for rural Albertans possible and we will not let up'

Doug Schweitzer, minister of justice and solicitor general, announces initiatives Wednesday to combat rural crime in Alberta. (Peter Evans/CBC)

The Alberta government announced Wednesday a multi-faceted approach to protect rural landowners from criminal activity.

The province will shorten response times to rural 911 calls by creating a Rural Alberta Provincial Integrated Defence Force (RAPID), Justice Minister and Solicitor General Doug Schweitzer said at a news conference at a ranch in Wetaskiwin County.

The plan will impose additional law-enforcement responsibilities on Alberta sheriffs, fish and wildlife officers and commercial vehicle enforcement officers, who will be asked to help RCMP and other police services in ensuring faster 911 response times.

The province will also raise fines, with jail time a possibility, for trespassing on any rural property whether it's used for residential, industrial or commercial purposes.

Planned legislation includes a proposed five-fold increase to the maximum fines for trespassing offences, up to $10,000 for a first violation and $25,000 for subsequent offences. A prison sentence of up to six months will be possible.

Corporations that help or direct trespassers would face fines up to $200,000.

The government will also amend the Occupiers' Liability Act to prevent offenders from suing landowners. The amendment will be made retroactive to Jan.1, 2018.

The amendments are in response to the case of Eddie Maurice, who was charged after a suspected thief was wounded by gunfire on his property on Feb. 24, 2018.

The Crown dropped the charges but Maurice faces a civil lawsuit from one of the trespassers who says he was injured by one of Maurice's warning shots. 

The province said it will also make it harder to sell stolen property such as copper wire, a favourite target of thieves.

"We're taking steps here today to help disrupt that supply chain of cash that's going into organized crime and helping feed addiction across Alberta," Schweitzer said.

"Our goal is to provide the strongest protection for rural Albertans possible and we will not let up."

NDP justice critic Kathleen Ganley said she didn't think the changes to enforcement responsibilities would make much of a difference. 

"I think the biggest concern is that we're not seeing additional boots on the ground," said Ganley. "It's all very well to say that fish and wildlife officers and sheriffs can respond to calls but that doesn't alter their arrest powers."

Ganley also said she would wait and see how some of the legal changes are implemented before forming her opinion. 

Schweitzer said the initiatives announced come directly from more than 20 town halls on rural crime he's attended across the province over the past two months.

Trucking company owner Leighton Sorensen, whose property has been robbed three times in 10 months said he's pleased with the new measures.

"It starts to give me hope and faith in our justice system, in our government," said Sorensen, who was among many local residents on hand for the province's announcement.

"I still don't want to confront people that are stealing from me," he said. "But it gives the RCMP the tools to be able to stop them from doing it again possibly."

The government will proclaim the Scrap Metal Dealers and Recyclers Identification Act which requires dealers to obtain proof of identification, retain information about the transaction and report stolen property.

The plan will give victims of crime a stronger voice when it comes to sentencing criminals, Schweitzer said.

Community impact statements will allow community members to describe how crimes impact them and their surrounding neighbours to the court at sentencing.

Community impact statement forms will be available online in early January.

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