Skip to main content

Politicians rarely lend a friendly ear to someone charged with assault but David Chen's case isn't typical, which is why federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney found himself dropping in a Chinatown grocery store yesterday to offer moral support.

Mr. Chen became a cause célèbre last May when he was charged with kidnapping, forcible confinement and assault after he collared a shoplifter who came back to his Toronto store.

The man Mr. Chen nabbed has since pleaded guilty.

The 36-year-old store owner, however, still faces charges and his lawyer wants to challenge the constitutionality of Section 492(2) of the Criminal Code, which sets how people make citizen's arrests.

The section states that a property owner can arrest someone "he finds committing a criminal offence on or in relation to that property."

This means shopkeepers can only stop someone at the moment of the offence, and on their property, when often the theft is revealed after the suspect flees the store, said defence lawyer Peter Lindsay. "What are you supposed to do if you're a shopkeeper?" Mr. Lindsay said.

The distinction is crucial in this case because Mr. Chen grabbed the man when he returned an hour after shoplifting potted plants displayed in a lane outside the store.

According to court filings provided by Mr. Lindsay, Anthony Bennett pleaded guilty on Aug. 17 in connection with thefts at two stores, including Mr. Chen's Lucky Moose Food Mart on Dundas Street.

Mr. Bennett was sentenced to 30 days in jail, on top of 10 days of pre-trial custody.

Meanwhile, Mr. Chen, who was charged under his Chinese name, Chen Wang, is to be back in court Oct. 22, along with his brother-in-law and a staffer who were also charged.

Mr. Lindsay said the prosecution told him it might withdraw the kidnapping accusation, which, by reducing the charges, could block his client from seeking a jury trial.

Community leaders have rallied around Mr. Chen, complaining that the Toronto police have failed to protect Chinatown's merchants from shoplifters.

The clamour led to Mr. Kenney's visit, as part of his role as his party's point man for ethnic voters.

Mr. Chen greeted the minister by reading from a handwritten prepared statement. "You are always kind. … And you try to understand us. You are a friend of the Chinese community. Thank you."

A smiling Mr. Kenney worked the crowd - "Look at that firm handshake, God bless you," "So good to see you James. You're the man," "Every time I see him he looks younger" - and posed for photos before meeting privately with Mr. Chen and the Victims' Rights Action Committee, a group lobbying on his behalf.

Afterward, the minister said he didn't want to interfere in a court case. But he offered sympathy to merchants of shoplifting. He said Mr. Chen, who arrived as a refugee in 1991, is an exemplary newcomer to Canada and a victim of crime.

"Our government has tried to place a great emphasis on cracking down against all kinds of crimes. … I will certainly raise his concerns and the Victims' Rights Association's recommendations with my colleagues in Parliament."

Amid all the expressions of support, there was a voice of dissent, a supermarket client who, as Mr. Kenney entered the store, started shouting that "vigilantism isn't right."

The man, who would only give his first name, John, said he was a local resident who felt Mr. Kenney had no business getting involved in the controversy. "He's here for political points."