Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today in support of Bill C-444, an act to amend the Criminal Code (personating peace officer or public officer).
The bill is basically identical to the previous bill, Bill C-576, which died on the order paper when the last Parliament ended.
Bill C-444 was reported without amendment from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights on April 24, 2013.
The bill deals with the existing offence of personating a peace officer or public officer. Specifically it would make it an aggravating factor on sentencing if the offence of personating a peace officer or public officer was committed for the purpose of facilitating another offence.
Prior to 2009, pretending to be a peace officer or public officer was a straightforward summary conviction offence. At that time it carried a maximum of six months in prison, a maximum fine of $5,000 or both.
In 2009, this government hybridized the offence and increased the penalty to a maximum of five years when prosecuted on indictment, in former Bill S-4, also known as the identity theft bill. That legislation came into force on January 8, 2010.
The maximum sentence of five years reflects the fact that the offence only requires that a person pretend to be a peace officer or public officer. It does not require that they have a specific malicious purpose for doing so or that they accomplish something malicious by doing so.
Some people may impersonate the police for the thrill of feeling powerful or for other relatively minor objectives, such as obtaining information or gaining access to a place. Simply pretending to be a peace officer or public officer so that others may believe that person is in fact one, without any other motive, is enough to result in a conviction. Such cases may still be dealt with by way of summary conviction proceedings, based on the Crown prosecutor's assessment of all the relevant circumstances.
However, the five-year maximum penalty enacted in 2010 ensures that law enforcement and Crown prosecutors have the tools to appropriately address serious incidents of this behaviour, preserving public confidence in our peace officers and public officers.
Police personation can be closely associated with other offences. It can, in fact, be used as a tool to make the commission of other offences easier. Because we live in a society where most citizens are trusting of the police, members of the public may acquiesce to the authority of someone they believe to be a police officer or a public officer. The exploitation of citizens' trust in the police demonstrated by this kind of situation is the most troubling form of offence. It is especially deserving of condemnation by sentencing courts, as well as by Parliament.
This is precisely the situation that Bill C-444 targets. Bill C-444 would make it a mandatory aggravating factor on sentencing for the crime of personating a peace officer or public officer if the offence was committed for the purpose of facilitating the commission of another offence. It is frightening even to imagine how people could be influenced to comply with directions or the assertion of authority by someone they believed to be a police officer.
We are taught from our earliest interactions with our parents and teachers that police officers are safe persons we can rely on, especially in difficult or dangerous situations. It is thus not surprising that the vast majority of Canadians instinctively respect police officers' authority and follow their instructions, as we rightfully believe they are acting to keep us safe.
When criminals take advantage of this trust to defraud us or worse, that bond is jeopardized. This not only causes a great deal of anguish for individual survivors of these offences but also acts to make it more difficult for police officers or public officers to do their jobs effectively and keep our communities safe. Fortunately this is a rare occurrence, but its extreme seriousness can justify express condemnation in the Criminal Code.
It is also important to recall that in determining a fit sentence, the court must in all cases take into account all relevant aggravating and mitigating factors. Paragraph 718.2(a) of the Criminal Code describes a number of aggravating factors that apply to all offences. These include, for instance, evidence that the offender, in committing the offence, abused a position of trust or authority in relation to the victim. However in addition to these factors that are specifically listed, the sentencing court always retains discretion to determine if additional circumstances revealed by the evidence are aggravating or mitigating factors that should affect the sentence.
It is already the case in our law that a sentencing judge can take into account the aggravating nature of this form of police personation. What Bill C-444 would do is essentially codify this practice in the context of the criminal law.
Bill C-444 merits support because it addresses a truly horrific form of criminality which has so many negative consequences on the public at large, on the ability of the police to carry out their functions, and especially on any individuals whose trust in public institutions and authorities was used against them to facilitate their victimization. There have been a number of incidents of this form of conduct reported in the papers in the last few years. Just this past April it appeared that at least two more incidents of personating peace officers have occurred.
In Calgary there are recent media reports that a man driving a silver sedan with unauthorized red and blue lights pulled over two vehicles, scaring the innocent drivers. Fortunately, the victims realized that something was not right about the impostor and got in contact with the real authorities to report the situation. Luckily, nobody was harmed. However, this act has surely shaken Canadians' trust and their belief in who is or is not a police officer.
On the east coast, the Halifax Chronicle Herald reported criminals had been personating local police officers via telephone in order to fraudulently solicit donations for a bogus charity. The scam artists claimed that they were police officers fundraising to help combat youth suicide. This disgraceful conduct not only preys on generous citizens, but also makes it more difficult for real officers to give back to their communities through legitimate fundraising activities, which is a long-standing tradition in police services across our country.
Of course, there was the tragic case in the sponsoring member's riding, which saw a devastating abduction and sexual assault of a teenage girl near Penhold, Alberta. This incident clearly influenced the proponent's decision to bring this legislation forward.
During the most recent committee study of the bill, members heard the courageous testimony of the survivor of that offence as well as that of her mother. I applaud the immense strength of that young woman's courage to travel to Ottawa and assist the committee by sharing her story with members of Parliament as well as with all Canadians. She rightly explained to the committee that there should never be shame or stigma in reporting or speaking out against sexual violence.
By passing this legislation we would send a clear message that the courts must give serious weight during sentencing to the enduring harm that is caused when criminals personate police officers or public officers for the purpose of committing other criminal acts, including sexual assault and kidnapping.
All Canadians should be concerned about these cases and should be encouraged to take the appropriate steps to avoid being duped by this very deceptive form of criminality. In particular, citizens should continue to trust the police but they should also recognize that criminals are not above exploiting their trust.
It is a difficult balance to achieve. The exercise of a bit of caution is a good thing. It is reasonable to ask to see the badges of individuals who appears to be police officers, especially if being requested to go with them or to allow them to enter the premises, or if they appear to be soliciting donations. This kind of verification process must be done respectfully and cautiously. If an impostor flees when asked for identification, immediately call 911, report the incident and attempt to provide an accurate description of the person and any associated vehicle while the encounter is still fresh in memory.
We as parliamentarians can help educate and inform Canadians about these risks, which many may be unaware of. In terms of Bill C-444, we can also vote to support this legislation and express our unified condemnation of those who would use our best natures as citizens against us.
I hope all members will join me in supporting this worthwhile legislation.