Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

New citizen's arrest law may spark vigilantism: lawyer

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TORONTO -- Canadians who nab bad guys or act in self-defence could soon have better protection from legal reprisals, prompting concerns that people might be encouraged to take the law into their own hands.

In announcing the proposed measures on Thursday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said it simply wasn't fair for people to face prosecution for protecting themselves or making citizen's arrests.

Lawmakers may have wanted to discourage vigilante behaviour, Harper said, but laws have created confusion and unfairness.

"It has become increasingly unclear what we can legally do to protect ourselves and our property," he said. "In the view of many Canadians, the scales of justice have tipped too far away from the right of self-defence, and toward the protection of criminals."

The changes follow a notorious case in Toronto's Chinatown in which a store owner who chased down and held a career shoplifter for police ended up being charged with forcible confinement and assault.

Although David Chen was ultimately acquitted, "only a lawyer could take comfort from that," Harper said.

Nathalie Des Rosiers, general counsel with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, worries the legislation could encourage vigilantism.

"The potential for abuse here is great," Des Rosiers said.

The law could also lead people to put themselves in dangerous situations, she added.

Harper stressed police remain frontline crime fighters but cann't be everywhere at once.

Under the proposal, the Criminal Code would be changed to clarify Canadians' right to act in self-defence, to protect their property, and to make a citizen's arrest. Currently, a citizen's arrest is justified if the thief is caught red-handed.

In Chen's case in May 2009, he and two relatives grabbed the shoplifter an hour after he stole plants from his store. The proposed law would allow an arrest "within a reasonable period of time."

Des Rosiers said smarter prosecution, not legal changes, might have been a better course of action. But Harper said Chen's situation was only one example of how the law had become fuzzy.

Harper, who made the announcement after buying maple syrup at Chen's Lucky Moose Food Mart, said the legislation would "correct a lot of lack of clarity."

Chen said he felt "really happy" and hoped the law would pass.

New Democrat Olivia Chow said she was pleased the government was adding "flexibility" to citizen's arrests.

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 18, 2011 A17

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