02/07/2012 03:03 EST | Updated 04/08/2012 05:12 EDT

Canada Citizen's Arrest Law Doesn't Condone Vigilantes: Justice Minister

OTTAWA - There's no appetite in Canada for vigilante justice but the occasional warning shot over the head of a thief or trespasser may have its time and place, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson agreed Tuesday.

MPs on the House of Commons justice committee have begun studying a bill that will simplify Criminal Code rules on citizen's arrest, self defence and defence of property, using a broad definition of "reasonableness."

The Conservative government is responding to all-party agreement that the law needs to be updated to clarify when a person can detain someone committing a crime on their property, and when they can use reasonable force to protect themselves.

The high-profile case of a Toronto shop owner, charged after he detained a repeat shoplifter in 2009, helped galvanize public opinion to clarify the law. David Chen was eventually acquitted, but many felt he was badly wronged.

Nicholson, testifying at the justice committee, appeared set on corking high expectations for the new law to ensure it does not spark a rash of renegade arrests by private citizens.

"Vigilantism is not something that we've ever encouraged in this country, and certainly this bill doesn't do that either," Nicholson said.

"There's nobody who wants Canada to go down that road," he later added.

But the simplification of the rules for citizen's arrests and self defence, which strip arcane legal language from provisions that have stood for more than century, had some MPs on the committee wondering just what constitutes "reasonable" time limits and reasonable force.

Nicholson said old case law will continue to guide the courts. "We don't have to start from scratch."

Chen was charged because he did not apprehend the repeat shoplifter at the time of the theft in his Chinatown grocery story. Rather, Chen tied up the thief and threw him in a van when he reappeared about an hour later.

The new law will give people a "reasonable" time to apprehend and detain someone after a crime, a period that Nicholson said will depend on the circumstances. In a remote northern community, for instance, a suspect may have to be held for a day or more before police arrive, while in an urban centre it could be a matter of minutes.

There also appears to be a wide latitude for gun play.

Conservative MP Brian Jean raised the issue of rural Albertans who have faced repeated property thefts.

"And people have used firearms shot in the air, or shot around the people (trespassing). Would that be a reasonable use of defence in the circumstances?" asked the Fort McMurray MP.

Nicholson responded, "I think it is."

"Every case is decided on its own," said the justice minister, "but the individual who has people, for instance, coming onto their property and stealing or destroying or trying to take possession of their property, the individual who shows a firearm ... again, it is what is reasonable under the circumstances."

In a brief interview after the committee hearing, Nicholson was asked again if it might be reasonable to fire a shot over the head of a thief or trespasser.

"It depends on what they're doing," he responded.

"If you were under reasonable apprehension that somebody was trying to break in to your house or set fire to your car and you waved a gun at that individual, it seems to me that would be reasonable under the circumstances."

Both Jean and Nicholson stressed that while firing a weapon might be a reasonable warning in a remote area, it would not be in an urban setting.

"Shooting a rifle over somebody's head in downtown Toronto is not acceptable," Jean said outside the hearing room.

"But on a farm in the middle of Alberta, or thereabouts, (it) would probably constitute some sort of normalcy or reasonableness."

NDP justice critic Jack Harris said the scenario illustrates why the language in the new law may have to be made more specific about what is considered "reasonable."

"Shooting a gun over their heads is essentially threatening to shoot them," Harris said. "That seems to me to be unreasonable. I hope that's not considered in this law."