Lucky Moose Bill gives shopkeepers more latitude in making citizen’s arrests

Shoplifters beware: As of today, getting out of the store with your ill-gotten gains doesn't put you in the clear anymore.

Changes to the Criminal Code have just gone into effect that essentially allow store staff to run you down and use reasonable force to detain you for the police.

The so-called "Lucky Moose bill" ends what many Canadians saw as a fundamental injustice in the law.

The legislation was named after Toronto grocer David Chen's store. Chen found himself under arrest when he and a couple of employees chased down a chronic shoplifter, and allegedly tuned him up a little until police showed up.

The store's closed-circuit video system had caught Anthony Bennett stealing plants an hour earlier, so when he returned for more, Chen went after him. That put him on the wrong side of the law.

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Chen was eventually acquitted but the uproar over the case spurred the Conservative government to amend the Criminal Code provisions covering self-defence and citizen's arrest.

"Victims of crime should not be re-victimized by the criminal justice system when they attempt to protect their property," Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said on the steps of the Lucky Moose on the eve of royal assent to the changes Thursday, according to the The Canadian Press.

The previous law required criminals to be caught "red-handed," but the changes allow the owners or lawful caretakers of property — including homeowners — to take "reasonable" actions without facing charges themselves.

But what's reasonable?

"The reasonableness of any action has long been determined by our courts," Nicholson said. "And so we don't put a time limit on it, say it must be done within an hour. … You may be in circumstances where it would take longer than that or shorter than that."

The ambiguity aside, Canadian retailers welcomed the amendments.

"We do not want to see hard-working small business owners treated as Mr. Chen was," Alex Scholten, president of the Canadian Convenience Stores Association, said in a news release. "The enhanced flexibility provided by the new law is a needed and timely adjustment and a very welcomed development."

The association pointed to a 2007 survey by the Retail Council of Canada that losses due to store theft and fraud — known as the shrink rate — was 1.54 per cent of total sales. In the convenience-store sector, that added up to $500 million a year.

"Given that it is often a matter of their economic survival, retailers will protect their property from being stolen by taking matters into their own hands and making a citizen's arrest and detaining a shoplifter until police arrive if they have no other satisfactory alternative," the association said in its release.

Scholten said the association does not encourage store owners or employees to take the law into their own hands.

"The police must be the first line of defence," he said. "However, we recognize that the police are not available at every street corner and shoplifting is certainly not a high priority offence for them.

"That is why the enhanced flexibility offered by the new citizen's arrest provisions is viewed positively by retailers. It provides them with enhanced rights to protect their property when police support is not readily available."

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National Post columnist Chris Selley said laws passed in reaction to hot-button issues often overreach, though not in this case.

"For all the Conservatives' talk of citizen empowerment, it makes a very modest change ..." Selley said.

So does this mean we're in for a wave of storekeeps leaping the counter to go after kids escaping with an illicit bag of chips? Probably not.

Selley points out the law's wording arguably makes it easier to charge Chen today because it now addresses the "feasibility" of police making the arrest. The Lucky Moose is 350 metres from a police station. But as Selley points out, it took hours for them to respond to Chen's previous shoplifting reports.

The new law, he concludes, does nothing to greatly empower citizens. The government "is utterly hell-bent" on reserving law-enforcement powers for the police.

"I see nothing in the so-called Lucky Moose Law that would noticeably impede their efforts in that regard. If it's a problem — and I think it is — then it isn't one that we can legislate away."