Local municipalities and B.C. police forces have to rewrite part of their battle plan in the war against marijuana grow operations after a B.C. Supreme Court drew the line at police entering homes without a search warrant.

The provincial government widened the powers of cities two years ago under the Safety Standards Act, in the effort to rid communities of the power-hungry and dangerous operations.

Surrey officials volunteered to launch a pilot project to try to reduce the safety hazards that grow-ops pose from fires, moulds and damage to the electrical grid.

The city established electrical and fire inspection teams (EFSI) to conduct inspections at residences that had been identified as having high electrical consumption.

The EFSI included a safety officer, a fire official, and two RCMP officers.

At attempt to search a Surrey home in May 2007 set off court action against the City of Surrey, BC Hydro and the provincial attorney general forcing the change in inspection plans.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice William Smart upheld the safety aspect of the legislation and allowed the inspections to continue, but ruled the Mounties can't accompany those safety teams without a search warrant.

Smart said the Safety Standards Act permits a reasonable balance between efficiency and individual privacy. He also said that such inspections are reasonable under the Charter of Rights.

That prompted a change in procedure, said Surrey city solicitor Craig MacFarlane.

"The practice now is to have the RCMP available but not on the person's property," he said.

When the program first began, MacFarlane said there were concerns about booby-trapped premises.

MacFarlane says that is no longer the case, especially because residents have 48 hours notice that there will be an inspection.

"Their level of comfort is such now that as long as the RCMP are available on the border of the premises they're OK with going in."

In fact, MacFarlane said the procedure was changed even before the ruling.

"What's changed is the RCMP will only accompany the team if there is a search warrant issued."

The court, said MacFarlane, recognized that there was "confusion" because the Community Charter gives municipalities the right to enter without a warrant to inspect things.

"The court felt, `No, you've gone too far,"' said the city solicitor. "If you're bringing in the RCMP that's not a regular municipal inspection."

The court ruling was initiated when Surrey residents Jason Arkinstall and Jennifer Green, agreed to allow the EFSI team inside their home, but refused entry to the RCMP officers who did not have a warrant.

Since 2006, the judge wrote in his ruling, BC Hydro "had forwarded the residential consumption records of approximately 6,000 properties to Surrey for review. Of those, approximately 1,000 have been identified for inspection."

Surrey RCMP spokesman Cpl. Roger Morrow said the only role of the RCMP since the start of the project was in a "keep the peace scenario."

And he also noted ironically that the police never did enter the Arkinstall residence.

The legislation governing the inspections and the police presence, he said, meant police might enter a residence and come across a grow-op.

But they didn't lay charges.

"Even before the ruling, we have come across active grow-ops and we didn't pursue those to criminal courts," said Morrow. "We took them down and made seizures but never laid charges.

Mounties were on the EFSI team only as part of the safety initiative "and we didn't want to jeopardize that program."

But the RCMP are still going with the safety teams when asked, he said.

"Are we going to be going into the homes? No."

He said the effect of the ruling is that police are not permitted to even knock on the door now.

Morrow said most people let the teams in after a 48-hour notice is posted on the door, and after an obvious cleanup.

"Most (residences) have been sanitized but there are always remnants. Some just clean out the equipment and leave the soil and pots but the dope's all gone."

Police have even come to know a popular cleaner.

"We run across the same cleaner at home after home after home."

While Surrey was the pioneer in these inspection teams, Morrow said there are similar programs underway or planned throughout the Lower Mainland.

J.J. McIntyre, who represented Surrey in court, said that if warrants were sought in the past, it was done by the city team, not the police.

The administrative warrant, or "prior authorization" differs from a criminal warrant that the RCMP must now get to enter a house.

"There's nothing preventing the police from attending and remaining on the sidewalk or outside," said McIntyre.

Brian Olthuis, who represented the B.C. Civil Liberties Association in court when it appeared as an intervener, said the judge also didn't entirely buy the argument that the police were only peacekeepers.

The judge wrote: "Regardless of any operational guidelines or policies of the EFSI team to the contrary, it is apparent that the police may use information or evidence they uncover while searching premises for police purposes."

Olthuis said that even if the police say they wouldn't lay charges, there would be nothing legally stopping them.

"As the judge says, they don't cease to be police officers because they are accompanying somebody," said Olthuis.