Grocer not guilty in citizen’s arrest case

David Chen speaks to media at Old City Hall where the charges against him were dismissed.

David Chen, the Chinatown grocer who was arrested after chasing down and apprehending a shoplifter last year, has been found not guilty of assault and forcible confinement.

The case became a cause célèbre across the country, with many hailing Chen as a hero for taking the law into his own hands against a serial shoplifter when police wouldn’t respond.

“I feel very, very good about this decision,” he said with a smile.

The courthouse was packed again Friday with many supporters from the Chinese community.

Security video of the chase down an alley has been played endlessly by television stations across the country.

The case centred on whether Chen went too far by tying up the shoplifter, who had taken $70 worth of plants on display outside Chen’s Chinatown store.

Chen testified that, prior to this case, he called police on several occasions to report thefts from his store and had to wait hours for them to respond.

In his long verdict, Judge Ramez Khawly pointed to the “moral cynicism” in Toronto’s Chinese community because of police inaction and inattention. That, the judge said, was a turning point in his decision.

He called all of the witnesses “evasive or not credible.”

NDP MP Olivia Chow, who acted as Chen’s interpreter at a news conference on the courthouse steps, urged her fellow MPs to adopt her private member’s bill that would change the Criminal Code to allow for cases such as Chen’s, when the arrest is made after the crime is committed.

Chen and two employees at Lucky Moose Food Market on Dundas St. W. were accused of assault and forcible confinement for chasing down and detaining a man who had returned to the Dundas St. W. store about an hour after stealing a rack of flowers in May 2009.

The Crown contended that Chen, 37, used excessive force in catching the thief and throwing him into a van until police arrived. It maintains that Anthony Bennett had not been caught in a criminal act when the citizen’s arrest was made.

Defence lawyer Peter Lindsay argued that Chen was interested only in getting his money back when the thief returned about an hour after stealing the flowers. The court heard that Chen wasn’t aggressive and only chased Bennett when the thief swore at him and ran. Bennett was argumentative and aggressive, Lindsay told the court in final arguments.

Lindsay said Chen was merely protecting his property and making a citizen’s arrest with “measured force.” The Crown has argued that Bennett wasn’t in the act of stealing when he returned to the store, so Chen was not acting beyond the boundaries of the law in trying to make a citizen’s arrest.

Chen pursued Bennett down an alley, bound him with a belt and twine and threw him into a van with the help of employees, Qing Li and Jie Chen. Court heard that Chen tied up Bennett to stop him from kicking and punching.

Even when putting Bennett in a van, “he was acting in a measured way,” Lindsay told court in final arguments. Meanwhile, a day before the verdict was handed down, the grocer was busy thwarting another thief.

Chen and his 55-year-old mother spent much of Thursday keeping their eyes peeled for a woman spotted stealing shampoo on a security camera Wednesday night.

When she returned to the store on Thursday, Chen said she allegedly tried to steal cooking oil, eggs and more shampoo from the Lucky Moose Food Market on Dundas St. W. Chen’s mother stopped the woman as she left the store, while he called the police.

“My mom stopped her. And the police came in good time today,” he said.  Chen, an immigrant who has only a shaky grasp of English, has told reporters he had little understanding of the nuances of the law. Court has heard that the father of two is a hard-working man who works from 5 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. most days and collects an average pay of $6.32 an hour. He often sleeps on a cot at the store.

His defence lawyer told court that Chen was victimized so many times that he put in a $30,000 security system at the store. Court has also heard that the chase and capture of Bennett took only about five minutes and Chen acted in the heat of the moment.  Lindsay told the court that Bennett has had 43 findings of guilty and the longest term he has been sentenced to has been 90 days.

Bennett has also been described as a career criminal and a drug addict who has lied in court. Lindsay also said that his client, not Bennett, sustained the most injuries as a result of the chase and capture. Upon tying up Bennett, Chen fought with the shoplifter because Bennett was kicking and punching to escape, the defence said.

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