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David Chen of the Lucky Moose Food Mart, whose action led to greater power to make citizen’s arrest. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Echoing what members of other police agencies are quietly saying, Halton Regional Police have sounded a warning note about the federal government's new Citizen's Arrest and Self-defence Act, which took effect Monday.

Citizens'arrests have long been legal in situations where the perpetrator is caught in the act of committing a crime, or very shortly afterward.

An amendment to the Criminal Code, however, now permits such arrests to take place within a "reasonable" period of time, without specifying what that means.

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It remains the case that citizens' arrests are allowed only when police are not on hand, or for some other reason are unable to effect an arrest. The law also compels any civilian making such an arrest to notify police immediately, and to transfer the suspect into police custody.

The new law stems from the 2009 case of a Toronto Chinatown merchant who chased and tied up a shoplifter and was charged with unlawful confinement – he was later acquitted – because too much time had elapsed after the theft.

Civil libertarians and others have voiced considerable concern about the legislation, saying it is too sweeping and could fuel vigilante behaviour. They also point out that the term "reasonable" is going to have to be addressed by the courts.

And while police are always reluctant to criticize new laws, their reaction has not been enthusiastic either.

"We want people to think of their own personal safety first, and not take actions that could potentially result in serious injury to themselves, or others," Halton Police Chief Steve Tanner said in a release Wednesday morning.

"Your first call should still always be to 9-1-1, as police are best equipped and trained to safely bring a suspect into custody…. Arresting someone can be a very serious and potentially life-threatening undertaking, which is why it is something that is best left to police."

In Ontario, all police officers are required to take a use-of-force refresher course at least once a year.

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"The best way citizens can assist us is by contacting us immediately when a crime is in progress," Chief Tanner said.

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