Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to express my support today for this important government bill, Bill C-64, aimed at combating the involvement of organized crime in the theft of motor vehicles by making it an offence to tamper with a VIN.
The bill was inspired by a private member's bill brought forward to Parliament by our late colleague, Chuck Cadman, namely Bill C-287. 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 give rise to a reasonable inference that it was done to conceal the identity of the motor vehicle.
It is proposed that anybody who commits this offence would be liable, if proceeded with by indictment, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or would be liable to a summary conviction. By virtue of section 787 of the Criminal Code, those people convicted of a summary conviction offence where no specific penalty is provided face up to a maximum term of imprisonment of six months and/or a $2,000 fine.
As previously indicated, Bill C-64 was inspired by private member's Bill C-287. Bill C-287 would have made it an offence for anybody without lawful excuse, the proof of which lies on the person, to alter, deface or remove a vehicle identification number on a motor vehicle. Bill C-287 provided that if proceeded with by an indictment, an offender would face up to five years imprisonment. Furthermore, if proceeded with by summary conviction, the offender would face up to six months imprisonment and/or a $2,000 fine.
There are clearly similarities and differences between the current government bill and Bill C-287. Many members have indicated concern with the notable difference between the two bills. It has been significantly contentious in debate. I have listened with great interest to both points of view and would like to present my thoughts on the matter now.
First and foremost, Bill C-287 placed what is known as a persuasive burden on the accused to prove the existence of a lawful excuse for tampering with a VIN. Therefore the bill required the accused to prove on the balance of probabilities that he or she had a lawful excuse.
A foundational element of our criminal justice system is that an accused person will not be convicted of a criminal offence if he or she raise a reasonable doubt. Under Bill C-287, people accused of VIN tampering would face the prospect of a conviction even though they may have raised a considerable doubt as to their guilt. Therefore Bill C-287 and this reverse onus raises significant charter considerations.
Instead, Bill C-64 would require an accused to raise the defence of lawful excuse based on the usual tests in criminal law for raising a defence, namely the test of raising sufficient evidence on each element of the defence for it to be considered by the judge or the 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 as there is more likelihood that prosecutors will proceed on this VIN tampering charge to trial. In other words, it not only can be proclaimed but it can be applied as well.
I think all hon. members would agree that we want to ensure that the laws we pass in this place can and will be used for years to come.
In addition, Bill C-64 would require that the alteration, obliteration or removal of the vehicle identification number be done under circumstances that give rise to a reasonable inference that it was done to conceal the identity of the vehicle. This element was not included in Bill C-287.
The purpose of this element of Bill C-64 is to distance the offence from these people, such as legitimate auto wreckers or mechanics who may in the course of their work alter, remove or obliterate a vehicle identification number. This consideration was made as it would be bad policy indeed to craft an offence under which a large group of legitimate workers might be caught under its scope.
I think all members would agree that the manner in which the government bill addresses this issue is sound.
Various key justice system stakeholders have called on the Government of Canada to enact an offence for VIN tampering.
First, the National Committee to Reduce Auto Theft, a multi-stakeholder group established in May 2000 representing stakeholders from mainly the police community and the insurance industry, released a subcommittee report in March 2003 entitled “Organized Vehicle Theft Rings”. This report, among other proposals, recommended the creation of a distinct VIN 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 identification number.
As well, in 2000 the Canadian Association of Police Boards passed a resolution calling on the federal government to enact legislation to combat theft in their communities which would include the creation of a Criminal Code offence for removing or obliterating a VIN number.
I am pleased to say that we have answered 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 rate of 100,000 people. My family and I are among that number, having had our vehicle stolen from our home last January. I share with many Canadians the feeling of violation and concern that comes with having a vehicle stolen from one's property.
I am pleased to note a slight decline in thefts since 2003 which in that year was 550 vehicle thefts per 100,000 people.
In order to compare certain provincial rates with the national rate, in 2004 the rate of motor vehicle thefts in B.C. was 889 per 100,000 and in Manitoba, it was 1,364 per 100,000. On the other end of the spectrum, Prince Edward Island had a rate of 187 per 100,000 and Ontario had 337 per 100,000.
Despite these variations in the rate of theft from province to province, this crime is still far too frequent in Canada. That is why, in addition to the current bill before the House, the Government of Canada is also committed to examining the issue of motor vehicle thefts 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 my home province of Nova Scotia, all ministers agreed to send the matter of Criminal Code amendments affecting the categorization of motor vehicle thefts and increased penalties for those who steal vehicles and drive recklessly to their senior officials for study and report. Therefore, FPT officials are now working collaboratively on assessing whether a separate indictable offence is needed under the Criminal Code for auto theft and whether the current penalties are suitable for the crime.
In assessing whether Bill C-64 would truly add an additional useful tool for law enforcement, I would outline the existing ways that motor vehicle theft and related offences are dealt with under the code.
The Criminal Code addresses the crime of motor vehicle theft predominately through its theft provisions. If an offender is convicted of theft over $5,000, he or she would be subject to a maximum of 10 years imprisonment on indictment.
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 on indictment.
The offence of taking a motor vehicle without consent, such as joyriding, is a straight summary conviction offence and therefore an offender faces a maximum six month term of imprisonment or a $2,000 fine or both when convicted.
As other speakers have noted before, the offence of possession of property obtained by crime is particularly relevant to those who engage in VIN tampering. Since there currently is no specific Criminal Code prohibition against VIN tampering, those who engage in this activity are often charged with the possession of property obtained by crime offence. The punishment for this offence, if the property is over $5,000, is 10 years imprisonment on indictment.
All too often those who commit motor vehicle theft flee from a lawful pursuit by a law enforcement personnel. In doing so, these offenders endanger the lives of not only themselves but innocent third parties, law enforcement and others. If no one is injured as a result of this flight, then the offender would face up to five years imprisonment. Although, in the event that bodily harm results from this activity, the offender faces up to 14 years imprisonment. Finally, if death results the offender faces a maximum term of life.
I think all hon. members would agree that these existing offences provide a wide range of tools and sanctions that would be complemented by the addition of a VIN tampering offence.
I am encouraged also by the recent changes brought forward by my colleague the Minister of Transport. These regulations regarding the mandatory installation of vehicle immobilization devices have been noted as leading to the significant reduction of motor vehicle theft, especially in the cases involving youth. I look forward to a time when all vehicles manufactured in Canada have these important anti-theft devices installed.
I suspect all hon. members can agree that the creation of a Criminal Code offence for the intentional alteration, obliteration or removal of a vehicle identification number serves many purposes. Obviously it fills an existing gap in the Criminal Code in a meaningful way. It also provides a useful new tool for police and crown prosecutors in the investigation and prosecution of organized vehicle thefts.
Finally, it responds to the calls of key justice system stakeholders to enact such an offence. At the same time it honours the commitment of our colleague, the late Chuck Cadman, to these and other justice system issues by bringing forward a legislative reform that was advanced by that honourable and distinguished member of the House.
Therefore, I join other members of the House in supporting this bill. I urge all members to do the same.