Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to stand to address Bill C-64 as the justice critic for the official opposition.
Before I deal specifically with this bill, let me say that I made a note of the parliamentary secretary's comments about the weight category and the immobilizing system that we will be required to put into a motor vehicle.
I noted that there does not seem to be any difficulty with the Liberals weighing a motor vehicle and then determining whether or not there should be an immobilizer, but they had the audacity to stand up the other day and say it would be too difficult to prove whether somebody could traffic drugs within 500 metres of a school. They said that would be too difficult for prosecutors to figure out, yet to get the weight of a motor vehicle in order for there to be an immobilizer did not seem to be any problem.
I think this again basically points out that this government is not particularly serious about addressing certain key problems. It will go after certain pet projects regardless of the difficulties that might be involved, but when it comes to taking forceful, effective steps against criminals, this government will bend over for the criminals every time.
Bill C-64 is professed to be an embodiment of Chuck Cadman's Bill C-287, which he tried to bring forward in the House in November 2004, asking for the support of the government. Of course the government turned Mr. Cadman down.
Looking at this from a purely political perspective, the government is saying that it should get something that looks like what Mr. Cadman wanted, but it also wants to make sure that nobody is actually effectively prosecuted or actually goes to jail for doing this, so it will make this look like Mr. Cadman's bill although it has some very serious deficiencies.
The government and the parliamentary secretary have said that this bill is going to address a gap in the law. That is clear. There is a gap in the law. Mr. Cadman understood that perfectly, coming from the motor vehicle theft capital of Canada. He understood that there was a serious gap in the law.
So what have the Liberals done? The Liberals have taken Mr. Cadman's bill in an attempt to address the gap and then created a loophole in order for criminals presently escaping through the gap to simply escape through a loophole that has been created in the legislation itself.
Speaking as a former prosecutor myself, I know that prosecutors do the best they can with the tools they are given, but why we do not give them the right tools? Why do we not give them the proper tools when they are asking for them? I can tell members what prosecutors are saying: that this bill creates the loophole that Chuck Cadman's bill was supposed to address, both substantively in terms of addressing the gap, and now the loophole.
Motor vehicle theft is a significant concern for Canadians and it is clear that nothing has been done about it over the last decade. For my home province of Manitoba, recent Statistics Canada figures from 2003 indicate that it has the highest rate of auto theft in the country, at 1,148 per 100,000 people, totalling 13,206 auto thefts that year.
Throughout the 1990s under this government, auto theft in Manitoba increased by over 250%. That was despite the fact that provincial governments attempted to do what they could in terms of prosecuting. Special units were brought forward to apprehend these individuals. More resources were brought forward, everything, but the main thing they could not do was change the Criminal Code. That was the problem.
We know that very few individuals commit most of the motor vehicle thefts, yet the issue of repeat offenders receiving mandatory jail sentences has never been addressed. One individual steals hundreds of cars in the course of a year and simply continues to receive probation, house arrest or some other kind of nebulous disposition under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.
I do not have to make up those kinds of statistics. We can all look at what is happening in the courts every single day. The courts keep saying that we should speak to our parliamentarians about the reason they are giving such meaningless dispositions because, they say, that is what Parliament has told them to do.
So what I am saying to the government is that as we are taking steps to fix the law, why do we not actually fix it rather than pretend to fix it? What interest is there in our society to keep on seeing motor vehicle thefts increase at the rate at which they are presently increasing?
One of the biggest problems is inadequate sentences. I know that the Liberal justice minister says mandatory prison sentences do not work, but one thing that we do know about mandatory prison sentences is that when these individuals are in jail, they are actually not stealing cars. They are actually being stopped from stealing cars. So for those who are responsible for stealing cars--and some of these young kids are stealing cars every day of the year--if we actually put them in jail, there would probably be one less auto theft per day. Some of these young individuals steal literally hundreds of cars in the course of a year.
There are many innocent victims of auto theft. The vehicle owner, the insurance company and subsequent owners who unknowingly purchase stolen vehicles or stolen auto parts all experience a loss. The 2003 study for the Insurance Bureau of Canada estimated that the direct dollar losses from motor vehicle theft in Canada are estimated at about $600 million per year. Local organized crime organizations are drawn to the industry because of the enormous profit potential and the relatively low risk of detection. The parliamentary secretary pointed that out. Increasingly, motor vehicles are not recovered when stolen.
It is not just kids doing this anymore, although they are dangerous enough in terms of using these motor vehicles. It is not just organized crime individuals who use these cars for break-ins all over the place. I know that in my province and in the city of Winnipeg this happens all the time. We also know now that organized crime groups are actually taking the cars for resale elsewhere. These cars never show up again. It is a booming industry that this government needs to shut down.
Motor vehicle theft does not only involve property loss, and I have talked about the property loss, but it has a significant impact on injury statistics. From 1999 through 2000, 56 people died as a result of auto theft. Studies indicate that vehicle theft is a serious road safety issue, resulting in a number of fatalities per year.
In fact, one police officer told me of a particular meth addict who is always stealing cars. His way of avoiding the police is taking the stolen car and driving it headlong into oncoming traffic on a freeway knowing that the police will not chase him because of the danger to innocent lives. However, even those few minutes in which this individual is racing down a freeway the wrong way are, I would suggest, a significant issue.
These kinds of occurrences are no longer exceptional. People are doing this because they know the police are restrained from high-speed chases. They know that the police act in a responsible manner.
What police expect of us as parliamentarians is that when they catch these individuals there should be appropriate penalties put in place so that they will not put other people's property and lives at risk.
The government refused to support Mr. Cadman's legislation. It did not come to him at that time and say, “Let us amend this. Let us make this work”. It simply said no. This really indicates that the government had no intention of ever following through on the real legislation that Mr. Cadman proposed. So while the government dithered on real legislation, hundreds of thousands of cars were stolen, millions of dollars were lost and, indeed, innocent lives were lost.
The government has finally taken notice of this bill for purely political reasons. Currently, the action of obliterating, altering and removing a VIN is not a specified criminal act. Section 354(2) of the Criminal Code treats tampering with a VIN in an evidentiary context, establishing that in the absence of evidence to the contrary a tampered VIN is proof of property obtained by crime. There is no law for the direct prosecution of a person engaging in the physical act of VIN tampering. This was the gap that I think the parliamentary secretary pointed out. It is a gap that needs to be addressed. Bill C-64 attempts to address this gap by creating this new criminal offence.
If the government brought forward the bill that Mr. Cadman wanted, I do not think we would have any problem supporting that bill. We would have to examine it again, but generally speaking we have always been supportive of Mr. Cadman's efforts in that respect, but we are concerned about this bill.
The new offence would be punishable for up to 5 years imprisonment. This is the same old story. We provide a substantive offence. Even in this case, I do not know if 5 years is a substantive enough offence when it usually is organized crime that deals with this kind of VIN tampering. The fact that we are limiting it to 5 years indicates that the government does not take this crime seriously enough. The other point is the government has not excluded house arrest for this type of offence. Criminals can still get house arrest for this offence, and that is not acceptable.
I would like to quote Mr. Cadman's explanation of his bill's purpose. He stated:
A conviction under the proposed law would clearly separate persons involved in auto theft rings from auto thieves who steal for destination driving or the short term use of the vehicle in the commission of a crime. The criminal record of the person convicted would set out that the person was involved in VIN tampering and this information would assist in future investigations of repeat offenders. The use of progressive sentencing for repeat offenders would be facilitated because the information concerning past actions would be readily available.
We do not see the idea of progressive sentencing to punish those who are repeat offenders. There is no acknowledgement here that Parliament needs to send a message to those few individuals who are constantly stealing vehicles on a daily basis.
Mr. Cadman was right to legislate a bill which clearly criminalized the tampering of VIN. Currently, the charge does not reflect the actual actions of the suspects and it is impossible to use progressive sentencing on repeat offenders, which Mr. Cadman advocated. Again, the government has left this matter out of the bill.
Today, investigators must arrest and charge suspects who engage in VIN tampering with possession of property obtained by crime. Clearly, that is not adequate. VIN tampering is not the same auto crime category as a 16 year old caught stealing a motor vehicle. We have the potential to differentiate crucial elements involved in auto theft and we should empower our peace officers with the powers they need to clamp down on auto theft.
Not only are we missing the boat in terms of sending a clear message to the more serious organized crime elements in this bill, there is another substantive problem and that is what the government has added to Mr. Cadman's original Bill C-284. This addition adds to the difficulty of the crown prosecutors job of proving the offence. The phrase that the government has added is “and under circumstances that give rise to a reasonable inference that the person did so to conceal the identity of the motor vehicle”.
This makes it an offence for somebody who alters or removes the VIN on a motor vehicle without lawful excuse. It already has given the individual the opportunity to demonstrate that he or she had a lawful excuse. They the government adds a superfluous element that now it becomes incumbent upon the Crown to prove that. That is the additional element “under circumstances that give rise to a reasonable inference that the person did so to conceal the identity of the motor vehicle”.
As a former prosecutor, I know that the government's bill, if passed, will put an onus on the Crown that is far too high and is not constitutionally required. When the police catch someone and prove beyond a reasonable doubt every element of the crime, there was nothing in Mr. Cadman's original bill that did not say the Crown did not have to prove every element of the crime. It has to prove every element of the crime.
Once the Crown proves every element of the crime, then it falls upon the individual to demonstrate that he or she had no lawful excuse. That is a standard practice in Canadian criminal law. There is nothing unconstitutional about that nor is there anything wrong with that. As long as the Crown is required to prove every essential element of the crime, then it is open for the government in its legislation to require on a balance of probabilities that the individual must demonstrate that he or she had some lawful excuse.
The government has added this, quite frankly, to the detriment of an effective prosecution.
I want to state for the record that if this bill should pass or if the government wants our party or my vote in order to pass this bill, let us take out that superfluous clause which does nothing to advance the interests of law enforcement. Indeed it only hinders law enforcement and is not constitutionally required.
The Conservatives will stand up for Mr. Cadman's original proposal, which called for the onus of proof to fall on the accused on a balance of probabilities once the Crown had proven all essential elements of the crime. That is what Mr. Cadman wanted. That is reasonable in Canadian law. Why then has this added phrase been put in there? Essentially, it is because the government has absolutely no desire to crack down on the problem of organized crime tampering with VIN. If the government were serious about, it would drop that phrase.
The Conservatives will continue to stand up for the rights of victims over the rights of criminals. While Mr. Cadman's original bill addressed the gap, I can only repeat again that this bill attempts to pay lip service to the gap and creates a loophole which will leave the law in exactly the same state as it is today.
Why are we going through this entire effort, if there is no advancement in this fight against what is such a scourge in our country today?