Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today in support of Bill C-26, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (auto theft and trafficking in property obtained by crime).
The bill is aimed at tackling the separate but related problems of auto theft and trafficking in stolen property and other property obtained by crime. The bill reintroduces offences for tampering with a vehicle identification number and for trafficking in property obtained by a crime, which was initially set out in Bill C-53, a bill that our government introduced in the 39th Parliament.
Bill C-26 also proposes a new distinct offence of theft of a motor vehicle, which is similar to the offence proposed in Bill C-343, a private member's bill introduced by the hon. member for Regina—Qu'Appelle, which died on the order paper in the last Parliament. I would be remiss if I did not mention at this time the efforts of the member for Regina—Qu'Appelle for his outstanding work on behalf of his constituents and for raising awareness of this serious issue.
Auto theft is one of the most pervasive forms of property crime in Canada. While there has been a downward trend in auto theft rates in the last decade, it stills remains one of the highest-volume offences in Canada. In its December 2008 report on motor vehicle theft, Statistics Canada reported that in 2007 approximately 146,000 motor vehicle thefts were reported to the police across Canada, averaging 400 thefts per day.
Motor vehicle theft has created a significant impact on owners, law enforcement and the insurance industry. The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates that auto theft costs Canadian more than $1 billion each year, including non-insured vehicle theft, policing, health care, legal costs and out-of-pocket costs such as insurance deductibles.
Motor vehicle theft also creates public safety concerns for Canadians, as stolen vehicles are often involved in police chases or dangerous driving, which can result in injury or death to innocent bystanders. Such was the case of the tragic death of Theresa McEvoy, a Nova Scotia educator and mother of three children who was killed on October 14, 2004, when her car was struck by a youth driving a stolen vehicle. Sadly, this is not a rare incident. A study carried out by the National Committee to Reduce Auto Theft reported that in the period of 1999-2001, 81 people were killed as a result of auto theft and another 127 people were seriously injured.
The bill therefore proposes that a new offence of motor vehicle theft be added at section 333.1 of the Criminal Code. It is true that many offences in the Criminal Code already address motor vehicle theft, such as theft, fraud, joyriding, possession of property obtained by crime and flight from a police officer. However, the bill would create a distinct offence with an enhanced penalty for a third and subsequent conviction in the form of a mandatory minimum sentence of six months imprisonment.
The creation of this distinct offence is an important measure that will assist prosecutors. A problem currently facing the courts is that very often a prosecutor is unaware that the offender is a career car thief. Normally, the offender is simply charged with theft over $5,000 or possession of property over $5,000 and there is no indication on the available record as to the type of property that was stolen. The result is the prosecutor and the judge do not know if they are dealing with a prolific car thief or with a car thief involved with organized crime. The proposed distinct offence will help give the courts a clearer picture of the nature of the offender for bail hearings and when it comes time to impose a sentence.
In a report published in 2004, Statistics Canada estimated that roughly 20% of stolen cars were linked to organized crime activity. Organized crime groups participate in the trafficking of stolen autos in at least three ways. First, they operate chop shops, where stolen vehicles are disassembled and their parts are trafficked, often to unsuspecting customers. Second, organized crime is involved in the process of altering a car's legal identity through changing its vehicle identification number, commonly known as its VIN. Third, high-end, late-model luxury sedans and sport utility vehicles are exported from Canadian ports to far-off locations in areas such as Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
The bill takes serious steps to address organized crime's involvement in motor vehicle theft in a number of ways, including by the proposed creation of two new offences of general application that will target trafficking in property obtained by crime whether stolen property or property obtained by fraud or other crimes. Let me be clear, though. The scope of the proposed trafficking offences is comprehensive and will extend to all forms of trafficking and property obtained by crime, not just stolen autos.
To understand how the proposed offence of trafficking and property obtained by crime would help, consider what ultimately happens to personal property when it is stolen during a typical break and enter. Members in the House probably have constituents who can relate to the offence of break and enter. When thieves break into homes, the first thing they usually do with the goods is sell them to a fence, who buys them at a significant discount and then sells the stolen property at a profit, either to pawn shops, legitimate businesses or directly to customers who have ordered a specific item such as a high-end bicycle or electronics.
In the theft cycle it is the fence who provides the avenue to pursue the financial incentive that motivates the thief to commit the initial crime.
Another example of trafficking involves the stealing of vehicles to export or dismantle for parts. This is a lucrative business for organized crime and one that affects the legitimate retail industry. Stolen parts are easily fenced and often sold to unsuspecting customers or garages. It is far easier to traffic automotive parts than entire vehicles, especially when exporting by sea.
Selling automotive parts can also be more lucrative than selling an entire automobile because parts from cars older than five years old are often worth much more than the vehicle would be worth if it was sold as a whole.
Chop shops that disassemble stolen cars thrive in urban areas, especially those with easy access to ports. Canadian chop shops export automotive parts throughout the world.
Presently the general offence of possession of property obtained by crime in section 354 of our Criminal Code carries a maximum of 10 years imprisonment for property valued over $5,000. It is the principle Criminal Code offence that is used to address trafficking in property obtained by crime. There is no specific trafficking offence that adequately captures the full range of activities involved in trafficking, such as selling, giving, transferring, transporting, importing, exporting, sending or delivering stolen goods. The current theft and possession provisions also do not recognize organized crime involvement in these activities.
There is an organized nature to the activities involved in dealing in property obtained by crime. Take auto theft as an example. Chop shops often keep as little inventory as possible to avoid detection and to minimize the risk of multiple counts in the event of a raid. The offence of possession of property obtained by crime does not capture the fact that the chop shop operation processes far more motor vehicles than are normally seized during a raid. Additionally, the police often only charge the person who is in possession of the property at the time of the raid. In many cases none of the other players can be fully prosecuted during the existing theft or possession offences.
To more effectively address organized crime, including commercial auto theft, it is necessary to target all the middlemen, including the seller, the distributor, the person chopping the car, the transporter and the person arranging and organizing these transactions. This is also the case in regard to the trafficking of stolen property in general.
The proposed reforms in Bill C-26 will give law enforcement and prosecutors new tools to target those who participate in any part of the entire range of activities that are involved in the disposal of illegally obtained goods. To this end, it will make it an offence to traffic in or possess for the purpose of trafficking in property obtained by crime.
The proposed offences will be based on a wide definition of trafficking. It will include the selling, giving, transferring, transporting, importing, exporting, sending or delivering of goods or offering to do any of the above. As such this, new law will target all of the middlemen who move stolen property from the initial criminal act through to its sale to the ultimate consumer.
I should mention that there are victims at both ends of the spectrum, the individuals who have had their property stolen and the unsuspecting purchasers of goods obtained through the theft from innocent victims.
This government believes that serious crime should be appropriately punished. Accordingly the proposed trafficking and possession for the purpose of trafficking offences will have higher penalties than the existing possession offence in section 354 of the Criminal Code. If the value of the item trafficked exceeds $5,000, the maximum penalty will be 14 years imprisonment. If the value is less than $5,000, the matter will be a hybrid offence and will carry a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment on indictment or six months on summary conviction.
As noted, the movement of stolen property across Canada's international borders, especially automobiles, is a particular problem. However, at our ports now, Canada Border Services Agency officials cannot use their administrative powers under the Customs Act to stop suspected stolen vehicles from leaving our ports. In order for the CBSA to be able to bar the cross-border movement of property obtained by crime, goods must first be classified as prohibited goods for the purpose of importation or exportation.
No such classification is currently set out under federal law. If customs officials come across suspected stolen automobiles, they do not currently have the administrative authority to detain the shipment, or even to determine themselves whether the cars are stolen by accessing databases. They can, of course, refer clear cases of criminal activity to the police, but the application of administrative customs' powers would be far more effective in helping to interdict the export of stolen goods.
To address this concern, I am pleased to say that the bill proposes to supply the necessary express prohibition against the importation or exportation of property obtained by crime. This would trigger the administrative enforcement powers of the Canada Border Services Agency.
In the case of auto theft, for example, CBSA officers would be able to investigate, identify and detain imported vehicles or vehicles about to be exported, and to search databases to determine whether such vehicles were indeed stolen. These actions could ultimately produce evidence that would allow the police to conduct criminal investigations and lay criminal charges.
As I have mentioned, another one of the ways in which organized vehicle theft is facilitated involves disguising the identity of stolen vehicles. This process involves stripping the vehicle of all existing labels, plates and other markings bearing the true vehicle identification number, and then manufacturing replacement labels, plates and other markings bearing a false vehicle identification number obtained from imported or salvaged vehicles.
There is currently no offence in the Criminal Code that directly prohibits tampering with a vehicle identification number. Like trafficking, the current Criminal Code provision used to address VIN tampering is the general offence of possession of property obtained by crime.
The proposed amendment would make it an offence to wholly or partially alter, obliterate or remove a VIN on a motor vehicle. Under the new offence, anyone convicted of tampering with a vehicle identification number could face imprisonment for a term of up to five years on indictment, or punishment on summary conviction.
As of October 1, 2008, when Bill C-13 came into force, the general penalty for an offence punishable on summary conviction is now a fine of not more than $5,000, or a term of imprisonment not exceeding six months, or both. This would be an additional offence. A person could be charged with both the possession of property obtained by crime and the proposed VIN tampering offence, which could result in a longer sentence. In order to ensure that the proposed VIN tampering offence does not capture lawful behaviour such as automobile body repair, recycling and wrecking, the offence also includes an express exemption provision.
This government is serious about fighting crime, and this legislation is a strong measure to help law enforcement and prosecutors punish criminals who commit auto theft and trafficking in property obtained by crime.
I want to take this opportunity to thank our Minister of Justice, who has carried the ball on a number of significant measures that tackle violent crime, gang crime, organized crime and motor vehicle theft. As he is fond of saying, we are just getting started.
There is so much more we can do, and we are doing that. This bill is a big part of protecting all Canadians from the offence of motor vehicle theft.