Is Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s proposal to strengthen the rights of those making a citizen’s arrest yet another part of a misguided agenda to get tough on criminals?
Some experts argue that there are no grounds to pump up Section 494 of the Criminal Code, which outlines rules of a citizen’s arrest. They warn that a get-tougher legislation could be disastrous.
Harper has promised to spend billions of dollars on new prisons, anticipating a growing inmate population with his government’s crackdown on crime (although the crime rate is actually falling in Canada). Is he reasoning that offenders must be apprehended at any cost, be it by citizens or trained authorities — just to fill those jails?
Legal and enforcement experts urge caution, saying that bolstering citizens’ powers could court vigilantism, possibly endangering the innocent. The Liberals and New Democrats should also heed that warning. They support Harper’s plans.
Untrained civilians dealing with criminals are entering a danger zone. Is the offender a ticking time bomb, armed, desperate, buzzed-out on drugs, with little regard for human life?
“The challenge is the unknown,” said Ottawa police chief Vern White. Calling 911 should be everyone’s first move, said White, who hopes that citizens don’t encounter the same dangers his officers do.
Harper promised greater citizen’s arrest rights after a single incident. A shoplifter stole $60 worth of flowers from David Chen’s Toronto store. When the suspect returned an hour later, Chen and two others tied him up and threw him in the back of a van until police arrived.
Chen was arrested, then later dismissed on charges of assault and unlawful confinement. He became a hero.
In an unprecedented move, Harper met with Chen and promised to get tough on crime.
The vote-rich area of Toronto, important at election time, cheered Harper.
But the Criminal Code states, in part, that a person can make a citizen’s arrest when the criminal is caught in the act, has reasonable grounds to believe a person committed a crime or if a suspect is being “freshly pursued” by law authorities.
Ottawa resident Jim Morrow killed an intruder in his apartment 16 years ago. He doesn’t agree that the current system “is too soft.” He blames the frustrations of crime victims on a “too slow” court system after spending three tumultuous years clearing his name of second-degree murder.
Other victims of crime are frustrated by what they call slow police responses.
Morrow says that Harper may be grandstanding with a “showpiece legislation” for the next election.
While some Canadians welcome greater powers to make arrests, legal and security experts think otherwise.
“There is a concern that untrained citizens might arrest in situations where it isn’t really justified, and a further concern about citizens putting themselves in dangerous situations where someone — themselves, the person they are arresting or innocent bystanders — might get hurt,” said Jonathan Dawe, a criminal lawyer and professor at the University of Toronto.
Brian Robertson, a senior security consultant in Toronto, maintains there is “no solid argument” to expand citizen’s rights. Any changes are fraught with risk and could invite citizens to engage in “tracking people down.”
Robertson also questions the political motives. It’s a “slam dunk” for Harper because he already has opposition support for the changes, which will be seen as caring for the average Canadian.
Vancouver criminal lawyer Rishi Gill observed: “In making the proposed change, we do need to ask: what is the outer limit of a private individual pursuing their own investigation? I doubt the police will want this.”
What Canadians want is to feel safe in their own homes and businesses, and have a sense that the justice system is working for them.
Spending money on policing advancements and staff, and developing ways to speed up the court process, would make far more sense than zeroing in on citizens’ arrests.
If Harper wants a more civil and secure society, real initiatives are required — not troubling gestures.
Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.