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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

Shopkeepers should continue to be prudent about apprehending thieves, although the Citizen's Arrest and Self-Defence Act (a set of amendments to the Criminal Code) now gives them more leeway.

The federal government was right to introduce these amendments. Retailers should not be simply at the mercy of shoplifters, when police forces naturally give priority to more serious crimes and often cannot arrive at the scene until it is too late to make an arrest, or recover the goods.

Moreover, shopkeepers should not be at risk of being charged with assault or unlawful confinement. The new amendments were the result of the case of David Chen, the owner of the Lucky Moose Food Mart in Toronto, who detained a "career" shoplifter when he came to the store to steal for the second time in an hour. Mr. Chen and the thief, Anthony Bennett, were both charged.

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The change to the Code lets a citizen detain someone "a reasonable time" after the offence. The intention is evidently to get past the previous requirement to catch the thief red-handed, in the very act of the crime.

The phrase "a reasonable time" invites questions. It probably reflects Mr. Chen's case and the conundrum he was faced with. The judge saw the continuity in Mr. Bennett's larceny and acquitted Mr. Chen. That proximity in time should provide some rule-of-thumb guidance for future cases. The word "reasonable" is famous for being flexible – a "weasel" word, some call it. What was literally all in a day's work for Mr. Bennett made it reasonable for Mr. Chen and a couple of his employees to detain him.

But retailers and other victims of crime should not engage in prolonged efforts to catch a thief. Nor should they venture into ambitious uses of force to detain offenders. The police, for all their training, often fall into errors of judgment in their use of lawful violence. Store clerks would inevitably make even worse and more frequent mistakes in applying force.

The Lucky Moose Food Mart in Toronto's Chinatown is not a small store but it is directly managed by its owner. Mr. Chen's experience should not be a precedent for large department stores or chains, let alone the private-security forces they may see fit to hire. Heroism may be legal, but it is always risky.

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