Not any more

Big anger in Little China over citizen’s arrest law

In Canada on October 3, 2010 at 18:05

When David Chen and his brothers bought a three-storey white-brick storefront in Toronto’s Chinatown two years ago, they inherited, on a balcony above the street, a life-sized fibreglass moose — one of a series that speckled the city many years ago. They painted the moose’s antlers with Chinese gold coins, painted the Yin and Yang symbols on its back and gave it Fu Man Chu moustaches. Then they named their grocery store after the mascot, calling it Lucky Moose Food Mart.

Luck, however, has proven elusive.

In May of last year Mr. Chen’s video cameras caught images of a man stealing plants and fleeing on a bike. When the man returned an hour later, Mr. Chen and his brothers chased him, caught him, tied him up, threw him in a van and waited for the police.

Toronto police did arrest the thief, Anthony Bennett, charging him with theft. But they also arrested Mr. Chen, 36, jailed him overnight and charged him with kidnapping, possessing a concealed weapon (the box-cutter he uses to open cases of produce) forceable confinement and assault.

Crown attorneys have since dropped the first two charges. Mr. Chen’s trial on the forceable confinement and assault charges begins Monday.

The case has become a cause célèbre in Toronto, clogging radio talk shows and filling the pages of the city’s four Chinese-language daily newspapers. Most opinion sides with Mr. Chen.

“It’s been covered and covered and covered,” says Chi-Kun Shi, a Toronto lawyer who is helping Mr. Chen, and whose ex-husband, Peter Lindsay, is Mr. Chen’s lawyer. Merchants in Chinatown, she adds, “say David is their hero. These are business owners. They are not Rambo. They are not waiting around to do some kung fu.”

Having exhausted their anger at Toronto police (who say they must charge Mr. Chen because he broke the existing law on apprehending shoplifters) some in Toronto’s Chinese community have turned their wrath on Ottawa, which has failed in 17 months to lift a finger to rewrite the law.

“People call the talk shows and say, ‘Is this racism?’ ” Ms. Shi says.

“And you can’t blame them for using the R word when you consider the complete disregard the Conservative government has shown to the Chinese community over the David Chen incident.”

Jason Kenney, the federal Immigration Minister, said last year that “Mr. Chen is a victim of crime. The law should remember that property owners have the right to use reasonable means to protect their property.” His government, however, has not changed the law.

Meanwhile Joe Volpe, the Toronto Liberal MP, this year introduced a private member’s bill to decriminalize Mr. Chen’s act. Olivia Chow, the New Democrat MP who has Lucky Moose in her riding, introduced her own legislation, the Lucky Moose Bill, in Parliament this week.

Dundas Street West, where Lucky Moose lives, is a chaotic stretch where trucks double-park at all hours, streetcars struggle to pass, and $25 foot massage emporia compete with bubble tea places, ginseng shops and barbecue restaurants.

On Friday at lunchtime Mr. Chen, a white T-shirt stretched on his athletic frame, stood in front of Lucky Moose, directing workers as they stacked bok choi and red onions and red grapes ($1.99/lb). On weekdays he gets up at 4 a.m. and treks to the Ontario Food Terminal to pick up produce. He showed me a bed in a tiny attic, where he sometimes naps, next to four video monitors that display images from 60 cameras in the store. He works until midnight.

“We are working hard,” he says. “And then we get charged. It’s not very fair. We feel very bad. I feel I want to get out of the case, but I can’t get out of the case. I just want to protect my stock. I just want to get this over with so I can get on with my business.”

He showed me, taped to a pillar in the store, a photograph of an old man in a baseball hat pushing a stroller.

“This guy came in with a child and stole $35 worth of stuff,” he says.

Many of the thieves here get away, storekeepers said. Even those convicted serve little time. Anthony Bennett, 52, the man Mr. Chen caught, has been convicted 28 times, in Ontario and British Columbia, starting in 1976, mainly of theft, possession of cocaine and trafficking in narcotics. On each offence, he served a few days in prison.

In August 2009, Mr. Bennett pleaded guilty to the Lucky Moose theft and two thefts from another plant shop. The Crown asked for 90 days in jail; the judge knocked that down to 30 days to reward the thief for agreeing to be a Crown witness against Mr. Chen.

Down the way from Lucky Moose, John Chan was sitting at his counter at China Art City, a sprawling shop that sells bonzai and bamboo plants along with ginseng, ceremonial daggers, tea and large carvings of Buddha.

Mr. Chan, who regularly chases thieves from his store, vows to attend court on Monday to support Mr. Chen.

“I call the police so many many times,” he says. “They come in one hour, sometimes three hours.”

Therefore, he reasons, “If you see someone steal something, you catch them. That’s normal.”

Mr. Chen just worries how the busy Lucky Moose will fare while he and his brothers sit in court. “The store is going to be a mess,” he says.

National Post

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