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Leef's handcuff controversy reflects poorly on all involved

It is not every day that the Yukon makes national news, but when it does the stories always seem to be bizarre.

It is not every day that the Yukon makes national news, but when it does the stories always seem to be bizarre. Whether it is news that someone swallowed the sour toe in Dawson City or that time we all freaked out and shut down the capital on 9/11, we have an unfortunate tendency to produce news stories that make us seem strange to the rest of Canada.

The kerfuffle surrounding Ryan Leef’s citizen’s arrest of a sign-destroying vandal who detailed her account in this paper has provided the rest of the country with an opportunity to have yet another chuckle at our peculiar way of doing things up here.

Now is the time for some obligatory “of courses.”

Of course it was wrong for Carrie Boles to vandalize Leef’s signs. This is a point that is overwhelmingly obvious and Boles’s claim to not know that what she was doing was illegal is perplexing.

We may disagree with a particular candidate or their party, or just take exception to them blocking our view of the trees with their propaganda (a view I have a lot of sympathy for). But we do live in a democracy with private property rights, and we should all respect that.

But aside from a small number of people who have bought into the misguided notion that “civil disobedience” is not only virtuous but ought to be consequence-free, of course most reasonable people agree that vandalizing election signs is wrong and support proportional punishments for those caught in the act.

And of course there are circumstances when, for various reasons, some degree of force in protection of person and property is justifiable and legal. We are not expected to stand idly by while our stuff is vandalized.

But acting within the letter of the law is setting the bar of proper behaviour pretty low, especially for a public official. And this may or may not have been one of those circumstances where such force was wise, prudent and demonstrative of good judgment. Questions ought to be asked.

Unfortunately there is a tendency among some people to believe that criminals inevitably get what they deserve, and all questions surrounding the appropriateness of a response to a crime is viewed as off-limits. We see this phenomenon every time there is a questionable police take-down, or a court case where evidence is excluded because of an egregious illegal search.

But for those of us who can walk and chew gum at the same time, it’s possible to simultaneously criticize two parties to the same incident. If you fall in this camp, you may have questions for Leef regarding his decision-making on the night in question.

Was it good judgment on Mr. Leef’s part to execute a citizen’s arrest? Would it not have been more prudent to take some pictures, maybe follow the individual for a little while and otherwise leave the matter to the police? One social media commenter noted that a loud “hey you” from the dark woods probably would have even been enough to discourage this person from engaging in this destructive behaviour again in the future.

The federal Justice Department’s website, while acknowledging that we have a legal right to perform such an arrest in defence of property, tells citizens to ask themselves: “Is it feasible for a peace officer to intervene? If so, report the crime to the police instead of taking action on your own.” Did Leef ask himself that question before taking the matter into his own hands?

There is also the question of whether the level of force was appropriate in the circumstances. Legal or not, would a regular police officer have forcibly handcuffed a 110-pound vandal caught in the act if the person was neither fleeing nor resisting? Did Leef even give Boles the option of voluntary compliance? Were the handcuffs really necessary considering that there were two people there to facilitate this citizen’s arrest?

And the question on many people’s minds is what was Leef doing carrying around handcuffs in the first place? When it sounded like he may have been on some sort of stakeout the fact that he handcuffs was understandable. Odd, but understandable. But when Leef denied that this took place in the context of a covert operation he raised more questions than he settled.

Does he carry handcuffs often? All the time? Does he encourage all citizens to carry handcuffs “just in case” they find themselves in the position of needing to make a citizen’s arrest? Is that the kind of society we want to live in?

I’m not sure what was going through Leef’s mind that night. Maybe he was hoping to tap into a sense of local frustration with a recent spike in vandalism and property crime. Maybe he finds that his new career in politics lacks the excitement of his previous jobs in law enforcement.

Whatever it was, his statements on the incident at the moment, while clarifying his version of the facts, have failed to answer some larger questions. They’ve also done little to quell the sense of embarrassment of having this story associated with our community.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.