Thursday, November 12, 2009

A disturbing juxtaposition

  • A motorist beats a cyclist so badly the cyclist loses a tooth. A passing class catches the incident on video. A judge acquits the motorist, on the ground that the cyclist impeded the motorist's "right of way", and the motorist feared the cyclist might "assault" his car.
  • David Chen, a shopkeeper in Kensington market apprehends a serial thief who has, earlier that day, stolen sixty dollars (almost a day's wages for one employee) worth of merchandise. The crown charges him with assault, forcible confinement, and kidnapping.
These two decisions seem troublesomely inconsistent. Our society might decide that citizens must never use force against one another under any circumstances; that even a shopkeeper, working on thin margins, may not use force against thieves who torment him. But in that case, a motorist would never have the right to use force in the case of a minor traffic dispute.

Alternatively, we could decide to allow citizens to use "reasonable force" to defend their right of way and their vehicles. But if a motorist has a right to beat a person merely out of a concern that this person may dent his car, surely a storekeeper has the right to use force against a person who has actually stolen from him.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms speaks of not bringing the administration of justice into disrepute. But those who administer justice have to do more than simply avoid dishonesty; they have to follow a consistent set of rules. They have to give those of us whom the system purports to protect reason to believe that if we act in good faith, and follow the law as the courts have interpreted it, we can expect the police and the courts to uphold our rights, whether we suffer an assault or stand accused of one. If the courts, meaning judges, crown attorneys, and the police, do not follow consistent principles, then people will simply stop relying on them.

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