Dismissed self-defence case good news, but no victory

July 18, 2011 11:31 pm

July 18th, 2011 – Matt Gurney, National Post

Unwitting self-defence champion Lawrence Manzer’s legal ordeal has come to an unexpectedly swift end. Manzer, a soft-spoken veteran of the Canadian Forces and resident of Burton, N.B., was charged in March of last year after confronting intruders on his neighbour’s property with an unloaded shotgun. Last Friday, merely hours into his long-delayed trial, a judge threw out the case against Manzer, but only on a technicality. While this is good news for Manzer, it’s bad news for proponents of the right to self-defence, who had hoped that a favourable ruling for Manzer might have sent a message to prosecutors and police across the country. But the outcome of Manzer’s case provides no greater clarity for future trials concerning self-defence.

On March 28, 2010, Manzer’s neighbour, Brian Fox, called the Manzer household in the middle of the night, and reported three intruders on his property. Their neighbourhood had already been hit by a wave of petty property crimes that the police had shown little interest in. Manzer rushed outside to assist Fox, while Manzer’s wife phoned police. Manzer carried with him a registered shotgun and a fistful of ammunition. He did not load the firearm. By the time Manzer arrived, Fox had subdued the intruders — three drunken teenagers. Manzer immediately put his shotgun and ammunition back into storage.

The teenagers were arrested and charged with minor alcohol-related offences, but several days later, police returned and arrested Manzer, seizing his firearms and charging him with possession of a weapon dangerous to public peace. If convicted, he could have faced heavy fines and up to two years in jail. After 16 months and several reschedulings, a judge found that the Crown attorneys had missed a paperwork deadline when laying the original charges, and quashed the case. While the Crown could recharge Manzer and begin the process anew, given the negative publicity this case has afforded them, it is unlikely that they will do so. Indeed, one suspects that they are relieved to have gotten off so easily.

Manzer was not the only citizen to face such challenges. Last May, Albertan Joe Singleton was charged with assault after wounding a man who had just burgled his house, and who was attempting to drive over Singleton’s car (which contained his wife) in order to escape. And Toronto shopkeeper David Chen came to national prominence after he was charged with kidnapping and unlawful confinement after tackling and tying up a man who had repeatedly shoplifted from Chen’s store. Chen was acquitted after long, expensive court proceeding. Singleton agreed to volunteer in his community, and the Crown dropped the charges (itself a worrying episode, in that service was compelled without a judgment by a court).

Manzer’s case was typical of the heavy handed approach the state has taken with citizens who dare to defend themselves. The right to self-defence is incontrovertibly supported by Common Law and the Criminal Code. So the police and Crown instead hit citizens with a series of lesser charges: in Manzer’s case, the obscure “weapons dangerous” charge, in Singleton’s, simple assault. These charges send a chilling message to any Canadian who might find themselves in danger: If you defend yourself, the police are as likely to come after you as they are your attacker. Canadian law enforcement officials and Crown attorneys clearly covet the use of state-sanctioned force, and assiduously guard their monopoly of it.

That’s not only morally wrong, but contrary to the spirit and letter of the law. Canadian citizens are not passive participants in the enforcement of law and order in their country. The police cannot always be counted on to perform their duties. This was true in Caledonia, Ont., where Ontario Provincial Police abandoned the town to native thugs rather than further enflame a lands-claim dispute. It was true for Manzer and Chen, where the police had made their indifference towards the local property crimes plain. And it was certainly true for Singleton, who found himself in a life-or-death situation on his rural property, without a cop in sight.

When police are not at hand and cannot be expected to respond in a timely manner, citizens are lawfully permitted to take whatever actions are necessary to secure life and property and to enforce the law. The state needs to be reminded of his. It’s a shame that a not-guilty verdict in the case of Lawrence Manzer can’t help send that message.

National Post

Follow Matt Gurney on Twitter: @mattgurney