The upside of self-serve justice

In May 2009, David Chen, a Toronto grocer, prevented a career criminal from robbing his store, performed a citizen’s arrest on the offender as he fled the scene and secured him in the back of a delivery van until the police arrived. Chen was then promptly arrested on charges of assault and forcible confinement. The ensuing legal battle between the Crown, headed by prosecutor Eugene McDermott, and Chen continued until late last month when a judge acquitted Chen of any wrong doing. Despite the triumph of sanity over soulless bureaucracy, the question remains: what is so wrong with our legal system that it allowed this absurdity to be pursued at all, much less for over a year?

Chen’s store was regularly robbed before this particular instance and on those occasions he called and waited for the police. Their response was anything but swift — Chen would usually wait for hours before they arrived and by then the thief was long gone, free to continue to commit real crime. This time though, Chen chased the man down and when the thief violently resisted, bound him with twine and waited for the police.

There was a problem with this though. For Chen’s actions to be totally legal, he would have had to catch the thief in the act. By preventing any theft from occurring, Chen made his subsequent actions, by way of a technicality, illegal.

This should hardly have been an issue. The evidence was clear that Anthony Bennett, the thief, planned to rob Chen’s store just as he had done so before. Chen was only protecting his livelihood. It was clear that unless he acted, nothing would change. Despite this, the Crown felt that Chen was the true criminal in the affair and gave Bennett a plea bargain to testify against Chen, the danger to society. This case is a prime example of how our justice system often not only fails in its duties, but pursues the opposite of what it should.

The purpose of a legal system, especially in a democratic and liberal country like Canada, is to protect and benefit the people. When those who direct the system lose sight of its true purpose, the system begins to exist for no higher reason but the continuation of itself. Justice becomes merely the enforcement of an arbitrary and meaningless ritual.

Justice was clearly not the relevant issue in this case, for the Crown sought to punish the man who was already a victim. Chen was forced into this position by the failures of the justice system and when he took matters into his own hands, he was falsely perceived as undermining the system as a whole. By prosecuting Chen, the Crown announced that it had lost sight of its true purpose. It was more concerned with purely following the letter of the law, without taking into effect the context and purpose that makes enforcement justice.

Bureaucrats and prosecutors who pursue this form of justice need to be excised from the system. They have no conception of the spirit of the law and are not interested in pursuing real justice. Instead they follow the letter of the law, ignoring its true purpose. They are no friends to the public and serve only to weaken our already shaky trust in the legal system.

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