New citizen’s arrest powers came into effect on Monday, allowing ordinary Canadians more room to collar criminals.

The newly amended Citizen’s Arrest and Self-defence Act includes one very important change, people can now make a citizen’s arrest within a “reasonable” amount of time after a crime has occurred, rather than only when catching a perpetrator red-handed.

But what constitutes a “reasonable amount of time” ?

“It’s not based on any definable criteria. I think it is very subjective and will be a case-by-case determination because someone can walk into a store a year later. Is that reasonable? Is three weeks reasonable? I’m not really sure what it means,” said Alan Young, a law professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association had requested that an outside limit of 24 hours be placed on citizen’s arrests, saying such a specification would provide better guidance.

Citizen’s arrests are only permitted when it is “not feasible” for a police officer to make the arrest.  Laws require any citizen making an arrest to call the police and deliver their arrestee without delay.

“If a person making a citizen’s arrest does not call the police as soon as possible, the arrest might be ruled illegal, and there could be civil or criminal consequences for the person making the arrest,” according to a government document explaining the law.

It remains unclear whether, for example a shopkeeper is required to call 911 before making an arrest of suspected shoplifters or whether they can call the police afterward.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association believes that the new law will mostly be used by private security guards investigating shoplifting in malls – and worries about possible abuses of power.

“The concern is that now it gives them the power to not only check whether you have something in your purse … now it will give them the power to arrest you on the grounds that they reasonably believe it was you yesterday, or two days ago, or last week, or this morning who stole something. And the arrestee has very little ability to debate them,” said Nathalie Des Rosiers, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

“It’s the abuse of the power that we’re concerned about and whether it will on the ground lead to some excesses.”

“A citizen’s arrest is a very serious and potentially dangerous undertaking,” explains the Department of Justice on their website,  “Unlike a police officer, private citizens are neither tasked with the duty to preserve and maintain public peace, nor properly trained to apprehend suspected criminals. Exercise extreme caution when attempting to make a citizen’s arrest.”

Canadians have been given a longer leash by the federal government, let’s just hope this doesn’t lead to a rash of  “wanna be” police taking matters into their own and is rather used in the proper spirit of the law.

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