Man's home 'invaded' by government search of fish tanks

Mike Baynes said he felt the inspection team invaded his privacy, when they came looking for a marijuana grow-op. (CBC)

A B.C. man who raises tropical fish said his home and privacy were invaded when local enforcement agencies knocked on his door while looking for a marijuana grow operation, and then forced him to pay for an electrical inspection and upgrade his fish-tank operation.

“I felt violated,” said Mike Baynes, 67, from Surrey, B.C. “When they came in here and saw no grow-op, I think they should have said ‘I’m sorry Mike,’ and then turned around and walked out.”

Baynes is one of 128 Surrey residents who don’t have grow operations, but were nevertheless subjected to searches and electrical repair orders in recent months because they use a lot of hydro.

“I think that is an invasion of privacy,” he said. “I don’t think that the City of Surrey has anything to do with my hydro consumption.”

Seven B.C. municipalities, including Surrey, are registered with BC Hydro to get monthly lists of all customers who use more than three times the daily average amount of power.

Teams of electrical and fire inspectors then go out to the homes they suspect could be marijuana grow operations to conduct searches, with the RCMP standing by outside.

Residents first get a written notice that says if they don’t consent to a search within 48 hours, the team will seek a warrant.

“I heard a noise outside, and then when I went and looked I had this big yellow notice stuck on my door,” said Baynes.

Because he wasn’t doing anything illegal, Baynes said he had no problem giving his permission. In hindsight, he said, he wishes he’d asked more questions.

“They come in, they look around, different guys wander around here and there and the electrical inspector comes in and he looks at the power bars under the aquariums and he says, ‘I don’t like those power bars on the floor,’” said Baynes.

“I misunderstood the system. I didn’t know that they had the powers to order a safety electrical inspection.”

Baynes said he was ordered to hire an electrician to look at his 19 fish tanks, which cost him $800. He added it was cheaper than it could have been because as a retired electrician he did some of the work.

“I think [municipal inspectors] have to justify their existence,” Baynes said. “They turned around and said, ‘We can’t find [any grow op] but — just in case — slap. Do this. And some of the quotes I got [for electricians] were $3,000.”

The electrician who did the inspection confirmed Baynes did nothing wrong, but some of his wiring wasn’t up to code. Baynes then made some upgrades to his fish tanks, which he felt were unnecessary.

“I was picked on,” he said.

Statistics show, for the first time last year, more often than not the Surrey teams found no illegal grow-ops at homes they inspected. In 2011, they found 82 marijuana grow operations, but also issued 128 electrical repair notices to law-abiding residents like Baynes.

“When you don’t find anything — and you still look for a reason [to issue an order] — I call that harassment,” he said. “And I’m paying for that. I pay taxes here.”

Surrey fire Chief Len Garis told CBC News that since the program started in 2005, the teams have inspected 2,253 homes, of which 1,158 were confirmed as illegal grow operations. Those homeowners were fined between $2,300 and $3,600, Garis said.

At slightly fewer homes — 1,067 — the inspectors found no evidence of illegal grow operations. Of those, 642 had legitimate reasons for high hydro bills.

The other 425 — like Baynes — were given repair notices for electrical violations, requiring them to do upgrades.

Garis added that because of the 48-hour notice of inspections, the grow operations they do find are “almost always” dismantled by the time the team does its search.

“When we get in there, the operators have pulled out all the plants and left,” said Garis. He also said he can’t remember a single inspection that led to criminal charges.

“Possibly in the early days there were charges, but I’m not aware of any,” said Garis.

He said the program is revenue neutral. Fees levied against homeowners with grow-ops have brought in $3.42 million so far, which covered the cost of inspections. Garis also said most residents without grow-ops consent to the inspections and don’t appeal the repair notices.

The executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association said he hopes more people will begin to stand up and fight. David Eby believes the bylaws and laws that allow these inspections would not hold up under constitutional challenges.

“There are an increasing number of people who are being subjected to these incredibly invasive searches who are doing nothing wrong except for potentially having some exposed wiring that they need to fix,” said Eby.

“How much power do we want to give police? How much power do we want to give city authorities to invade our privacy like that? They are going to find some grow-ops, for sure. But they are also going to violate the rights of a lot of people.”

The BCCLA is supporting residents in Mission, B.C., who have launched a class action lawsuit over similar inspections in that community.

One Mission resident who grows cucumbers was fined $5,200. Another got the same fine for a hot tub with faulty wiring.

“If B.C. continues to operate in this way, these kinds of programs will be introduced across the country,” said Eby. “If people value their privacy and if they think this is an overreach in terms of government power, then they need to be speaking out about it now.”

The BCCLA suspects more detailed B.C. Hydro customer information will be available to municipalities, once Smart Meters are gauging usage more quickly and accurately.

“As technology improves, they will be able to get even more information,” Eby predicted.

B.C. Hydro is required by provincial law to hand over customer billing information on all high-usage customers when asked by the municipality.

Chief security officer Bob Harriman insisted Smart Meters won’t make much of a difference. He said the billing records given to municipalities will be more up to date, but otherwise the same.

“The data being collected with the new metering system is no more different than the data being collected under the old system,” said Harriman. “The smart meters are not that smart.”

The utility sent 32 reports out last year to registered municipalities, detailing two years of billing history on all customers who used more than three times the daily average amount of power.

“BC Hydro guards very near and dear customer database information, and only shares it under legislative process,” said Harriman.

Baynes said he pays $450 a month for hydro. He’s worried now that the inspection teams have him on their list, they could be back.

“It all reminds me of 1984 written by George Orwell,” said Baynes. “The government is all powerful.”