Citizen's arrest bill announced by Harper

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced legislation intended to expand legal protection for people making citizen's arrests or trying to defend themselves or their property against a criminal act.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper paid a visit to David Chen's Lucky Moose Food Mart in Toronto's Chinatown on Thursday. (CBC)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced legislation Thursday intended to expand legal protection for people making citizen’s arrests or trying to defend themselves or their property against a criminal act.

Harper announced the new legislation — which has been expected since late last year — at a downtown Toronto press conference along with Vaughan, Ont., MP Julian Fantino.

The legislation comes in response to the case of Toronto shopkeeper David Chen, who was charged with assault and forcible confinement after chasing, restraining and tying up a man who had stolen plants from his Lucky Moose Food Mart in May 2009.

Chen and his co-accused cousin and nephew were found not guilty in October 2010, but the case made national headlines. It also caught the attention of federal politicians looking to make gains in vote-rich Toronto.

As written now, the Criminal Code requires a thief to be caught in the act for a citizen’s arrest to be justified. Chen captured the shoplifter one hour after he stole plants from his store.

However, the judge in Chen's case called the one-hour issue a "red herring," saying the thief had gone back for more loot. Anthony Bennett, the man nabbed by Chen, pleaded guilty in August 2009 to stealing from Chen's Chinatown store and was sentenced to 30 days in jail.

'Right balance has been lost' 

Harper said the new legislation will strike a better balance between allowing citizens to protect themselves and their property, while guarding against vigilantism.

"The right balance has been lost," said Harper Thursday.

"Our bill will clarify the right of Canadians to act in self-defence, to act to protect their property and it will expand the circumstances under which they can make a citizen's arrest," said Harper.

Toronto police Chief Bill Blair, who also heads the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, said he's fine with the federal government's move to clarify the law.

He only hopes that anyone considering a citizen's arrest knows what they're getting into for their own sake, and that of their prisoner.

"We all have different abilities," said Blair. "And there could be a potential risk. I know my officers face a risk and we train in equipment to deal with that, but there are some circumstances when you are detaining a person where you could be confronted with a violent individual, with an armed individual."

The Conservatives had been watching Chen’s case closely and Harper met with Chen in person to discuss the legislation. Chen spoke to CBC's Michelle Cheung on Thursday, and told her he's happy about the new legislation. Chen said the court case had been a difficult and expensive ordeal for him.

Liberal MP Joe Volpe and Olivia Chow of the NDP had introduced their own private member's bills to clarify the rights of those making a citizen's arrest, raising hopes among Conservatives that the legislation will receive cross-party support and a quick passage through Parliament.

"We took a look at those bills," Harper said Thursday. "We debated some other options and I think the bill the government is tabling today incorporates not just the better parts of those bills, but is much more comprehensive in scope."

Myer Siemiatyki, a politics professor at Ryerson University, questions whether the law even needs changing, given that the courts actually upheld the arrest made by Chen. He said yesterday's appearance may have been more about "optics" as Toronto looks to be a key battleground in an election that could come this spring.

"Is this the most compelling issue Canada faces today?" Siemiatyki asked. "That a prime minister and two cabinet ministers should come to Toronto, should leave Parliament, to unveil a new sentence to be added to the Criminal Code that is really redundant given court rulings? So I think this is very much about optics."