Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak to Bill C-64, a government bill aimed at combating the involvement of organized crime in the theft of motor vehicles by making it an offence to tamper with a vehicle identification number. I will simply refer to that as a VIN for the purposes of my remarks today.
This important bill was inspired, as has been mentioned earlier, by the late Chuck Cadman and a private member's bill brought forward by him, namely Bill C-287. Of course, while Mr. Cadman would not have claimed to be the originator of the thought, he certainly was the promoter of the initiative to make the act of changing the vehicle identification number on a motor vehicle a criminal offence.
In summary, Bill C-64 would make it an offence without lawful excuse to alter, obliterate or remove a vehicle identification number on a motor vehicle under circumstances that gave rise to an inference that this was done to conceal the identity of the motor vehicle.
It is proposed that anyone who commits this offence would be liable, if proceeded with by indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years, or would be prosecuted by a summary conviction procedure. By virtue of section 787 of the Criminal Code, people convicted under the summary conviction provisions can face up to a maximum term of six months or a $2,000 fine.
As previously indicated, Bill C-64 was inspired by the original private member's bill. That private member's bill would have made it an offence for anyone without lawful excuse, the proof of which lies upon the person, to alter, deface or remove a vehicle identification number. That particular bill provided that if proceeded by way of indictment, the prison term would be five years maximum and if by summary conviction the similar six months' imprisonment or $2,000 fine.
Therefore, there are real similarities between this and the private member's bill. However, there are a couple of differences.
First and foremost, the private member's bill placed what is known as a persuasive burden on the accused person to prove the existence of a lawful excuse for tampering with a vehicle identification number. Therefore, that bill required an accused to prove on the balance of probabilities that they had a lawful excuse. That is called a shifting onus or shifting burden in the Criminal Code. We generally do not do it very much at all because it shifts the burden to the citizen to prove that he or she had the right to do what they did. That is not the way we generally prosecute our citizens.
There is a fundamental element in our criminal justice system that an accused person will not be convicted of a criminal offence if they raise a reasonable doubt. Therefore, under the private member's bill a person accused of VIN tampering would face the prospect of a conviction, even though they may have raised a reasonable doubt as to their guilt.
Therefore, Bill C-287 and the reverse onus provision raised significant charter and other criminal justice considerations.
Instead, the government bill, Bill C-64, borrowing very heavily on Mr. Cadman's bill, would require an accused to raise the defence of lawful excuse based on the usual test in criminal law for raising defences, namely, the test of raising sufficient evidence on each element of the defence for it to be considered by a judge or a jury.
By adopting an offence which would not on its face attract charter litigation, we are contributing to the utility of this offence as a prosecutorial tool. We understand now, after many years of the charter, that to place a real conspicuous charter issue into a new Criminal Code provision would place the Criminal Code at considerable risk as a prosecutorial tool with it facing considerable amount of litigation. I think all members would agree that we want to ensure that the laws we pass can and will be used with reasonable utility for years to come by prosecutors and police.
In addition, Bill C-64 would require that the alteration, obliteration or removal of a vehicle ID number would be done under circumstances that would give rise to a reasonable inference that it was done to conceal the identify of the vehicle. This element was not included in Bill C-287.
The purpose of this element of the government bill is to distance the offence from those people such as legitimate auto wreckers or mechanics who may, in the course of their work, alter, remove or obliterate a vehicle ID number. This consideration was made as it would have been bad policy to craft an offence under which a large body of legitimate workers could have been caught under its scope, just on the straight wording of the section.
I think all members would agree that the manner in which the government bill addresses this issue is sound. I hope that is the case on this side of the House, but not on the other side.
Various key justice system stakeholders have called upon the Government of Canada to enact such an offence for vehicle ID tampering.
First, the National Committee to Reduce Auto Theft, which is a multi-stakeholder group established in May 2000 representing stakeholders mainly from police, community and the insurance industry groups, released a report in March 2003 entitled “Organized Vehicle Theft Rings”. This report, among other proposals, recommended the creation of a distinct vehicle identification number tampering offence in the Criminal Code.
In addition, in August 2003 the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police passed a resolution calling on the Government of Canada to create a Criminal Code offence specifically prohibiting the alteration, obliteration or removal of a vehicle ID number.
Finally, the Canadian Association of Police Boards in 2000 passed a resolution calling upon the federal government to enact legislation to combat theft in their communities, which would include the creation of that type of Criminal Code offence.
I am pleased to say that we have answered all these calls with Bill C-64.
In 2004 there were nearly 170,000 motor vehicle thefts in Canada. This translates to a rate of roughly 530 vehicle thefts per 100,000 people. I am pleased to note a slight decline in the rate since 2003. In that year it was 550 vehicles per 100,000.
In order to compare certain provincial rates with the national rate, in 2004 the rate of motor vehicle theft in British Columbia was 889 per 100,000, a significant uptake. In Manitoba it was 1,364, a significant increase above that of the national average. On the other end of the spectrum, Prince Edward Island had a rate of 187 and Ontario was 337.
Despite these variations in the rate of theft from province to province, the crime is still all too frequent in Canada. That is why, in addition to the current bill before the House, the Government of Canada also is committed to examining the issue of motor vehicle theft more generally with our provincial and territorial partners.
In this regard, on January 25 at the federal-provincial-territorial ministers of justice meeting, as brought forward by Nova Scotia, all ministers agreed to send the matter of Criminal Code amendments affecting motor vehicle theft or organized motor vehicle theft, increased penalties and reckless driving to senior officials in each of the provinces for further study. Therefore, the federal-provincial-territorial officials are now working collaboratively on assessing whether a separate Criminal Code indictable offence is needed to deal with this category of auto theft and whether current penalties are appropriate.
In assessing whether the government bill would truly add an additional useful tool for our law enforcement, I should outline the existing ways that motor vehicle theft and related offences are dealt with under the code. I do this so we can see how relatively weak the current code provisions may appear.
The code addresses the crime of motor vehicle theft predominantly through its theft provisions. If offenders are convicted of theft over $5,000, they would be subject to a maximum of 10 years imprisonment. In addition, those who engage in motor vehicle theft and related crimes are often charged with the offence of fraud. This offence carries a maximum of 14 years imprisonment on indictment.
The offence of taking a motor vehicle without consent, otherwise known as the joyriding offence, is a straight summary conviction offence. Therefore, an offender faces a maximum six month term of imprisonment or a fine of $2,000 or both once convicted.
As other speakers have noted before me, the offence of possession of property obtained by crime is particularly relevant to those who engage in vehicle identification number tampering. Since there is currently no Criminal Code provision against VIN tampering, those who engage in this activity are often charged with the possession of property offence. The punishment for that offence, if the property is valued over $5,000, is 10 years imprisonment on indictment.
All too often those who commit motor vehicle theft flee when approached by law enforcement. In doing so, these offenders, if they are driving when they flee, endanger the lives of innocent third parties, law enforcement officials and even themselves. If no one is injured as a result of such a flight, then the offender would face up to five years imprisonment. In the event that bodily harm results from that flight, the offender faces up to 14 years imprisonment. Finally, if death were to unfortunately result, the offender faces a maximum term of life imprisonment.
I think all members would agree that these existing offences provide a wide range of tools and sanctions, and will be complemented by the addition of a new VIN tampering offence. The broader issue is whether the code currently brings to bear sufficient focus on the whole range of auto theft and organized crime auto theft offences. The FPT officials who are working on this now will bring public policy focus there.
I also am encouraged by recent changes brought forward by my colleague, the Minister of Transport. New regulations regarding the mandatory installation of vehicle immobilization devices have been noted as leading to the significant reduction of motor vehicle theft, especially in cases of younger offenders. I look forward to a time when perhaps all vehicles manufactured in Canada will have these important anti-theft devices installed.
I think all hon. members can agree that the creation of a Criminal Code offence for intentional alteration, obliteration or removal of a vehicle identification number can serve many purposes.
First, it fills a gap in the Criminal Code in a meaningful way. Second, it provides a new tool for police and crown prosecutors in the investigation and prosecution of organized vehicle theft. Finally, it responds to the call of key justice system stakeholders to enact such an offence, while at the same time honouring the commitment of our colleague, the late Chuck Cadman, to those and other justice system issues by bringing forward a legislative reform that was advanced by the honourable and distinguished member who so sadly is no with us any longer.
I would therefore ask all members to join me in supporting this important Criminal Code amendment.