David Chen, centre, flanked by MP Olivia Chow and his lawyer, David Lindsay, shows his relief Friday after being found not guilty on charges of assault and forcible confinement. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

A Toronto Chinatown grocer and his two co-accused have been found not guilty on charges of assault and forcible confinement.

David Chen, his cousin and his nephew were all charged in the case, which received national attention when it was discovered the trio were arrested after catching a thief who tried to steal from their store. 

When their trial began earlier this month, all three pleaded not guilty.

On Friday, in delivering his verdict, Justice Ramez Khawly told the court that the case had become a cause célèbre, garnering attention from coast to coast. 

He was critical of both the prosecution and the defence, but in the end he dismissed the charges against all three defendants.

Khawly said the accused were justified under the law in making the arrest.

Storeowners in Toronto's Chinatown say they're victimized daily by shoplifters and when they report the crimes police do not respond quickly enough. 

They claimed Chen was the real victim. 

Outside the courtroom a happy, relieved Chen faced a crowd of reporters and said, "I feel very, very, good."

With his local NDP MP, Olivia Chow, acting as intepreter, he told reporters he hopes the attention the case has drawn to the shoplifitng laws will lead to changes.


Supporters of grocery store owner David Chen stand outside Toronto's Old City Hall court on Friday morning. ((Cheryl Krawchuk/CBC) )

"It will be good," he said in Cantonese, "if the law can change so storeowners are protected."

He added, "I just want to say thank you to everyone."  

The charges stem from a May 23, 2009, incident in which Chen, owner of the Lucky Moose Food Mart on Dundas Street West, and the others apprehended a man who had been stealing plants from the store.

The man who was nabbed by Chen, Anthony Bennett, pleaded guilty in August 2009 to stealing from the store and was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

Bennett was initially caught on security footage stealing from the store, but he returned an hour later. At that time, Chen, 36, and the two employees tied up the man and locked him in the back of a delivery van.

When police arrived, they charged Chen with kidnapping, carrying a dangerous weapon — a boxcutter — assault, and forcible confinement.

Crown prosecutors later dropped the kidnapping and weapon charges, but proceeded with the charges of forcible confinement and assault.

According to the Criminal Code, a property owner can only make a citizen's arrest if the alleged wrongdoer is caught in the act.