The owner of a Port Coquitlam bar recently subject to over $3,000 in fines for COVID-19 violations says police lied about the circumstances surrounding the incident and will be challenging the fines in court.
Leonard Hutchinson, who runs The Bennett Craft and Kitchen in Port Coquitlam, was fined $2,300 last week after Coquitlam RCMP officers responded to reports of a party inside the establishment.
A spokesperson for Coquitlam RCMP said officers responded to multiple calls on the evening of April 16 suggesting 30 to 40 people were inside the bar and restaurant. When they arrived, Const. Deanna Law said they found 16 people celebrating a birthday party in contravention of the current provincial current ban on indoor dining.
In addition to the $2,300 fine issued to the owner for organizing an indoor gathering in contravention of orders under the Emergency Program Act, the establishment’s 54-year-old bartender was fined $805 for both attending an indoor event and acting “abusive and belligerent” toward police officers when they arrived.
It was a 54th birthday to remember...— CQ RCMP (@cqrcmp) April 27, 2021
Last week 2 tickets were issued for a birthday party under the Emergency Program Act:
1. To the establishment for hosting guests indoors. Indoor dining is restricted Mar 29-May 25
2. The birthday boy who was abusive and belligerent to RCMP pic.twitter.com/GyabfzJVxR
But on Wednesday, Hutchinson challenged the police’s narrative. Hutchinson told the Tri-City News the alleged birthday party never took place, and the balloons decorating the bar were left over as a gesture to his bartender’s birthday the day before.
“On the 16th his family came for dinner during our regular hours in the patio. When we closed to the public at 10 PM, five (5) of his family members stayed behind,” wrote Hutchinson in an email.
At 9:45 p.m., the owner said an audio technician and producer came to fix the establishment’s DJ equipment and at 10:30 p.m., his girlfriend called to come pick him up with her three friends.
Everyone, said Hutchinson, was socially distanced and only removed their masks when seated at a table.
At 11 p.m., Hutchinson was informed that someone saw “5-0” outside the premises and that there were people with flashlights outside. When he went downstairs to see what was happening, he said several police officers were at the door.
“I said ‘We are closed! There is no party going on here.’ She (the female officer) made a move to enter. I said, ‘You cannot trespass!’” he wrote in an email.
That’s when another officer said they had a right to enter, brushed the owner aside and entered the premises, according to Hutchinson.
Hutchinson went on to describe a profanity-laden exchange, with police officers interpreting the balloons and the two people working in the DJ booth as signs of an ongoing birthday party.
The exchange ended in three violation tickets totalling $3,105.
BAR OWNER TO CHALLENGE VIOLATION TICKETS
Hutchinson told the Tri-City News he is preparing to submit a complaint against the Coquitlam RCMP officers for trespassing private property, “to press appropriate and related charges” and to to request "all appropriate compensation(s)" from a court "including but not limited to any related health issues that this unjust ticket may cause me to endure.”
Hutchinson, a retired school principal who took over The Bennett Craft and Kitchen in March 2020 just as the COVID-19 pandemic took off in B.C., said he has carefully followed restrictions in the months since.
“I am particular with obeying health orders,” he wrote in an email. “I personally disinfect my establishment every day and during regular hours operation. One year now and counting and we did not have a single case of Covid here. I was vaccinated three weeks ago.”
Moreover, he said, as someone who has fought against throat cancer in recent years, he supports the public health restrictions to stem the spread of COVID-19 and has personally been tested four times for the virus because his post-cancer symptoms are similar to those of COVID-19.
But in a call with Coquitlam RCMP, spokesperson Const. Law said police are simply enforcing public health orders that filter down from Fraser Health.
“We can enter and we can enforce the health and safety order,” she said, referring to the ban on indoor gatherings.
Law said entering a premise without permission is necessary to police work, and applies equally to enforcing COVID-19 restrictions at a business as it does to entering a home when police receive a mental health call.
“Are there 30 or 40 people inside?” she said. “We need to see if that is actually true.”
Law stressed she was only going off the police summary of the incident and was not on the scene at the time the violation tickets were issued.
Whether police officers would lie in such a report?
“That baffles my mind,” she said. “Can he contest it and say police officers are liars? Yes, they have the right to do that.”
APRIL SEES MAJOR UPTICK IN COVID-19 FINES
Const. Law said the violation tickets issued at The Bennet Craft and Kitchen are among 25 COVID-related tickets handed out across Coquitlam RCMP’s jurisdiction — which includes Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Anmore and Belcarra — between April 1 and 27.
That’s a massive increase compared to the previous 12 months of the pandemic, when Coquitlam RCMP handed out a total of 34 tickets.
Violations range from people refusing to wear masks to exhibiting belligerent behaviour and hosting indoor events.
“It seems pretty small, but when you go to something like that there’s multiple people,” she said. “When it happens, it’s obviously a big gathering that shouldn’t be there (or) because people turn belligerent and aggressive.”
The uptick in violation tickets comes at the same time Port Coquitlam was declared one of 16 “high-transmission” communities across the province targeted for special vaccine clinics.