SYDNEY, N.S. — People who offer a reward for the return of beloved artifacts “no questions asked” are likely unaware that it’s actually breaching the Canadian Criminal Code.
Gerald MacDonald, a lawyer in Sydney’s Crown attorney’s office, said section 143 of the code, which deals with advertising reward and immunity, is a little-known law and he has never actually seen a case where someone faced charges under it.
However, ignorance of a law is not a valid defence and there could theoretically be an occasion where it was applied.
It’s something that MacDonald only realized as he was researching another legal issue.
“Most lawyers wouldn’t be aware of it, either,” MacDonald said. “It’s one of those little, odd sections of the Criminal Code ... the Criminal Code is full of little offences like that that really the public probably isn’t aware of because it doesn’t happen very often.”
The issue arose last week when family heirlooms were recently stolen from a Sydney River home and a reward was offered seeking their return, no questions asked. Some of the items were subsequently recovered.
- Family heirlooms stolen from Sydney River man who recently died
- Family reporting that some taken family heirlooms have been recovered
Asking for information and offering a reward in themselves are fine, MacDonald said.
“It’s the no-questions-asked, thing,” he said. “I think if you look at people offering rewards for missing or lost items, it’s one thing if they’re looking for information that could lead to the return. The question becomes when you take it to the extreme saying, ‘We want it back, no questions asked, we won’t go to the police. That’s where it kind of draws the attention of that section of the Criminal Code.
“Essentially, they’re assuming the role of, I guess, the judge and jury of it, really, because they’re saying, ‘Return it to us and there is no complaint.’”
MacDonald said the motivation behind the section may be the desire to dissuade setting up a situation where vigilante justice is encouraged.
It could also be that it is to serve as an encouragement to co-operate with law enforcement.
“Whenever there’s a prosecution, it’s the state versus the (accused) person,” MacDonald said. “The victim is usually an individual or a family but in a broader sense, the victim is society, and that’s why it’s the state that takes the action and it’s R. versus, the Queen versus so-and-so.”
Individual cases, such as the one reported this week, can be heartbreaking, MacDonald said, adding he fully understands the motivation behind making such an inducement.
“But I think care has to be taken in how it’s worded, otherwise it could serve to undermine the justice system in some way,” he said.
The question could also be raised as to what constitutes an advertisement — whether it would have to be an actual paid advertisement or if an offer made in a news story or a posting on social media is sufficient.
The potential punishment for a summary offence conviction in the province of Nova Scotia is up to six months imprisonment or a fine of up to $5,000.
Advertising reward and immunity
According to the Criminal Code of Canada section 143, everyone is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction if they:
(a) publicly advertise a reward for the return of anything that has been stolen or lost, and in the advertisement uses words to indicate that no questions will be asked if it is returned,
(b) use words in a public advertisement to indicate that a reward will be given or paid for anything that has been stolen or lost, without interference with or inquiry about the person who produces it,
(c) promise or offer in a public advertisement to return to a person who has advanced money by way of loan on, or has bought, anything that has been stolen or lost, the money so advanced or paid, or any other sum of money for the return of that thing, or
(d) print or publish any advertisement referred to in paragraph (a), (b) or (c),
is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction.