Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to BillC-19, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (street racing) and to make a consequential amendment to the Corrections and Conditional Release Act on behalf of the Bloc Québécois.
The Bloc Québécois supports the bill, because it considers it to be a step forward. Of course, some changes could have been suggested. We will do that when it gets to committee.
The Bloc Québécois supports the principle of BillC-19, the purpose of which is to impose tougher penalties on people who participate in street racing, in order to deter people from engaging in practices like these that endanger the safety of the public.
We are very aware that this bill will not be sufficient in itself to put an end to the tragedies that are caused by street racing. However, sending a clear message that street racing will not be tolerated and will result in severe sentences will perhaps mean saving lives, by persuading some individuals to give up this dangerous activity that puts other people’s lives at risk.
This bill provides an opportunity to steer speed aficionados toward legal racetracks that have been set up for this purpose, and to make them aware of the terrible tragedies that racing on public streets can lead to.
First, I must point out that the previous government introduced Bill C-65, in September 2005, and that in October 2005 we supported it at second reading. It will be recalled that it died on the Order Paper, at committee stage on the dissolution of the 38th Parliament on November 29, 2005.
Unlike Bill C-19, Bill C-65 did not create new street racing offences. It simply treated participating in street racing as an aggravating circumstances for sentencing purposes in cases involving dangerous driving or criminal negligence.
The present BillC-19 therefore goes farther. However, when we pass a bill, will it have an impact on provincial laws, for example? We must always respect jurisdictions. We know that each province and territory has its own motor vehicle and highway safety legislation.
In Quebec, the maximum fine for a driver who engages in street racing is $600. In Ontario, an offender convicted of engaging in street racing may have his or her driver’s licence suspended for a maximum of two years.
Bill C-19 does not infringe on provincial legislation, because it requires that there be criminal intent. Criminal law is clearly under federal jurisdiction.
It appears that Bill C-19 will do nothing to alter the power that Quebec and the provinces have to regulate street racing. Here is an excerpt from an analysis of the bill by Dominique Valiquet of the Law and Government Division of the Library of Parliament:
An act during a sporting event may lead to criminal charges, even though the sport is provincially regulated. A parallel can be drawn with hockey. In Quebec, a regulation has been made, under the act respecting safety in sports, about hockey safety. Such a regulation does not prevent criminal charges from being laid against a player who committed an act that is an offence under the Criminal Code. An example would be assault causing bodily harm.
In the case of street racing, the act of a driver (even during a regulated event) can give rise to criminal charges if:
the driver has the required criminal intent;
the act represents a hazard that goes beyond the acceptable risks of the sport.
Dominique Valiquet continues:
However, it is important to note that Bill C-19 applies only to street racing in a public place. The first clause of the bill uses the wording “on a street, road, highway or other public place”.
Consequently, Bill C-19 does not apply to car races held on a track to which the public does not have access. However, in that case, criminal charges could be laid under the provisions of the Criminal Code on dangerous driving or criminal negligence causing bodily harm or death.
This opinion from Dominique Valiquet of the Law and Government Division of the Library of Parliament is clear as to the legal aspect of the bill.
We can summarize the bill by saying that it amends the Criminal Code by defining street racing and creating five new offences related to street racing. This is what distinguishes it from Bill C-65, for example, which was introduced by the other government. For three of these new offences, Bill C-19 provides for maximum sentences that are stiffer than those currently in effect for dangerous driving or criminal negligence while operating a motor vehicle. It introduces mandatory orders prohibiting offenders from driving for a minimum period, with a gradual increase in the duration of the order for repeat offences.
Let us take a closer look at this. For example, under current legislation, the courts must turn to the provisions related to dangerous driving or criminal negligence to punish those who engage in street racing. At present, the Criminal Code specifies four offences that could apply to street racing in case of death or injury: criminal negligence causing death, dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death, criminal negligence causing bodily harm, and dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing bodily harm.
Under current legislation, the fact that criminal negligence or dangerous driving was committed in the context of street racing has no bearing. That is what we hope to change.
As for mandatory driving prohibitions, the Criminal Code currently compels judges to suspend the driver's licence of any individual convicted of impaired driving. For offences of criminal negligence and dangerous driving, such a suspension is currently at the judge's discretion. The difference under the proposed legislation is that it would not be left to the judge's discretion; rather, there would be mandatory minimum sentences.
Let us first look at clause 1 of the bill. The bill defines street racing as:
—operating a motor vehicle in a race with at least one other motor vehicle on a street, road, highway or other public place.
The expression “operating a motor vehicle in a race” does not seem to include a timed race involving only one motor vehicle. That would have to be added and defined at committee.
The definition of “motor vehicle” is found in section 2 of the Criminal Code. It includes motorcycles, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles. This is very important because races often take place among these kinds of vehicles.
The definition of street racing applies to organized street races as well as those improvised in inappropriate locations not intended for this purpose.
As for offences pertaining to street racing, it is important to talk about the five new offences created by this legislation. In addition to participation in street racing, an element of negligence must be present. What is the difference between criminal negligence and dangerous operation? What defines dangerous operation is that the driver's behaviour must be markedly different in terms of due diligence compared to that of a reasonable person in the same situation. In the case of criminal negligence, the driver must be found to have acted with wanton and careless disregard for the lives or safety of others. There is a distinct difference. Also, it must be shown that there was criminal negligence or dangerous operation in order for the participant to be found guilty of one of the five new street racing offences.
Whoever assists or encourages a street racer may also be considered to have participated in the offence.
This is important because there are promoters of these races on the Internet, who will not be charged unless they are included. Those who organize such races, not just the participants, must also be held responsible.
Bill C-19 adds the five following street racing offences to the Criminal Code: dangerous operation of a motor vehicle; dangerous operation causing bodily harm; dangerous operation causing death; causing bodily harm by criminal negligence; and causing death by criminal negligence. This is very clear.
For three of these new offences, Bill C-19 provides maximum sentences that are longer than those currently set for dangerous driving or criminal negligence in operating a motor vehicle. In the case of dangerous operation causing bodily harm, the sentence is 14 years compared to 10. For dangerous operation causing death, the sentence is imprisonment for life compared to 14 years. The difference in sentencing and the new offences being added are significant.
Judges can also order driving prohibitions. The Criminal Code currently requires the judge to suspend the driver's licence in cases where an individual is convicted of having the care or control of a vehicle while impaired.
For criminal negligence and dangerous driving offences, such an order is currently at the judge's discretion. When an individual is found guilty of criminal negligence causing death, the licence may be suspended for life. Bill C-19 removes the judge's discretion by setting out a one-year mandatory minimum driving prohibition the first time an individual is convicted of dangerous driving or criminal negligence causing bodily harm or death while participating in street racing.
The bill provides that the minimum driving prohibition period will be increased for subsequent offences. It is important to read the driving prohibition provision very carefully. It prohibits the offender from operating a motor vehicle on any street, road, highway or other public place for a minimum period plus any period to which the offender is sentenced to imprisonment. This is in addition to any other sentence the court may impose. An offender may appeal a driving prohibition order before the National Parole Board to cancel or vary such an order. Driving during the prohibition period is punishable by up to five years imprisonment. This bill would make major changes to the Criminal Code.
Bill C-19's proposed system of gradually increasing the length of prohibition for repeat offences would have to be reviewed. For dangerous driving that does not cause bodily harm, the increasing length of the prohibition is identical to the provisions in the Criminal Code for offences involving drinking and driving. This seems reasonable to us.
However, the minimum lengths seem more problematic for repeat offences of dangerous driving and criminal negligence causing death. For example, if a person has already been found guilty of dangerous driving cause bodily harm and they cause another person's death as a result of dangerous driving, they will automatically be banned from driving for life. In that example, the fact that a judge is forced to ban the offender from driving for life could create adverse effects, effects we have gone over a number of times during discussions on minimum sentences.
Let us review the reasons that have always prompted us to be extremely cautious in using minimum sentences. Minimum sentences restrict the judges, who are in the best position to determine the most appropriate sentence in light of all the facts in each case.
The Bloc Québécois defends a model of justice based on a personalized process, with a case-by-case approach and with the principle of rehabilitation in mind. Minimum sentences can have adverse effects and lead to plea bargaining by lawyers wanting to have their clients charged with offences that do not have minimum sentences.
Minimum sentences could also compel a judge to acquit an individual rather than impose a sentence that he or she feels is too strict, in light of any particular circumstances. For example, a suspension for life, while the appropriate sentence might be a suspended licence for five years. Hence, the amendments and questions proposed by the Bloc Québécois regarding this bill.
The message we want to send to our young men and women is that there are places to engage in racing. That is what race tracks are for. So we do not want to discourage them or deny them the full enjoyment of their vehicles. Many young people put time and money into fine vehicles which are often very powerful. This is very much the fashion, and we do not want to discourage them from it.
What we are saying to them is that, when they do this, there are places for running their automobile trials. It is quite obvious that, for a young person who has spent a lot of money, it is always important to determine in the field whether the goods have been delivered. The message that we want to send our young people is that the only way to do this is on the race track and in those places where this type of racing is permitted.
I will also quote the member for Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, who had this to say about the Montreal police forces:
The Montreal police forces have gone to considerable lengths to try to prevent this while maintaining a respectful posture. There is station No. 24 in Montreal...which has done wonders in this regard. I think now, though, that the law needs to be toughened. These sentences, which used to be at a judge's discretion, need to be made mandatory
In closing, I will also quote the member for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine, who said, “Efforts have to be made in terms of prevention, education, information and so on”.
In his speech, the hon. member talked about the need to go further. The discretionary powers of judges have allowed this phenomenon to expand over time. It is spreading more and more in cities, but also, as the member for Gaspésie—Îles-de-la-Madeleine said, “in rural and other areas in Quebec and Canada”.
In closing, I will quote the Library of Parliament again:
Although there are supervised locations where speed lovers can test their vehicles completely legally, street racing is still popular. Street racers are often looking for thrills, and some feel that the thrills are heightened in the street, in traffic, where the unexpected may happen and racers risk meeting a patrol car.
Street racing is becoming a new challenge and is expanding, according to the research by the Library of Parliament.
Indeed, a variant of this activity has been invented — the “hat race” or “cannonball run”: money is put into a hat, which is put in a location that is kept secret until just before the race starts, and the first participant to get there wins the money. No holds are barred: the drivers run red lights and ignore stop signs. These races are a clear reflection of the general attitude of recklessness that prevails among street racing participants.
That is what the Library of Parliament researcher has to say.
In my opinion, this is one more reason to vote for this bill, which is a step in the right direction. We have to put an end to street races and put them back where they belong: on race tracks and in places that are legally designated for racing.