Debate needed on property rights

Commentary, Property Rights, Joseph Quesnel

JOSEPH QUESNEL, For the Winnipeg Sun

The Manitoba government’s attempt to seize the home of an accused sex predator is raising eyebrows in many quarters.

The civil suit states the home was instrumental in allowing the sexual abuse of a preteen girl.

What is interesting from a legal standpoint is Manitoba’s Criminal Property Forfeiture Act is mainly used to seize property involved in drug houses, grow-op operations, and the cars drug dealers use.

It is arguable seizing property of a sex predator is a step up from seizing property used in drug activities. In the case of the predator, they are harming someone tangibly.

People choose to come and buy drugs. Yes, many are addicted to hard drugs, but there is the choice to seek help and break the addiction.

Police and court resources would be better served by dealing with drug addiction as a public health issue. Seizing marijuana grow-ops are part of failed drug prohibition policies and so morally, the state should get out of that business.

While the government may be justified in seizing in limited instances, specific curbs need to be placed on government.

But this debate shouldn’t remain confined within the criminal justice realm. It ought to extend beyond to the whole issue of security of property in Manitoba.

While many Manitobans have no problem understanding why their government is contemplating seizing property from an alleged sex offender, many no doubt do not know that powers of expropriation in this province can be used to take away property from others simply on the grounds these individuals are interfering with the plans of third parties.

Under Manitoba’s laws governing municipal expropriation, for instance, a local government can attempt to seize property on the grounds it is for the community’s economic development. The exact meaning of “economic development” is left vague.

While there will be instances when government must expropriate for clearly defined public purposes, leaving this undefined is a temptation to abuse.

The same could be said for criminal justice. The Manitoba government should not be free to seize property at a whim. “Criminal activity” should be clearly defined. In criminal areas where seizure may be justified, the hurdles should ensure innocent people do not have their homes or property seized on unproven charges.

Manitoba needs to have a clear debate about property rights. It should only be seized in extreme circumstances and there should be legal safeguards in place. The playing field is unequal as government possesses the power of the purse and can fight individual landowners indefinitely. Well-connected Manitoba businesspeople in cahoots with municipal or provincial governments can damage property rights.

Property rights grant power to citizens. It is a buffer against government.

If anyone is unsure how property is connected to political freedom, visit a First Nation reserve where property rights are in the hands of political leaders, often with scary results. Leaving property rights to the mercy of government creates a relationship of vulnerability and dependency.

There are reasons beyond economics why a person’s home ought to be their castle.