I call the meeting to order.
This is meeting 28 of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. Today is Wednesday, June 3, 2009.
You have before you the agenda for today. The agenda shows three items for us to deal with. Unfortunately, we're getting started late, so we'll likely only get through the first item. Perhaps we'll touch on the third, which is an in camera planning meeting. During the first hour, by order of reference, we'll be considering Bill C-26, an Act to amend the Criminal Code (auto theft and trafficking in property obtained by crime).
To help us with our review of Bill C-26 on auto and property theft, we again have with us Minister Nicholson, who is the Minister of Justice and Attorney General for Canada. Supporting the minister are William Bartlett and Paula Clarke from the criminal law policy section of the Department of Justice.
Minister, we're glad to have you here again. You have 10 minutes.
Thank you very much. I feel as if I'm a member of this committee again, Mr. Chairman. I was for nine years, and I feel as if I'm back. It's like a permanent spot.
Thank you for the opportunity to be here on Bill C-26, the Act to amend the Criminal Code (auto theft and trafficking in property obtained by crime). It's an important piece of legislation. I think it demonstrates our seriousness about taking steps to crack down on property crime, particularly auto theft.
Auto theft remains a serious issue in Canada. It's one of the most pervasive forms of property crime in Canada. It is one of the highest-volume offences in Canada. In the December 2008 report on motor vehicle theft, Statistics Canada said that in 2007, approximately 146,000 motor vehicle thefts were reported to the police across Canada. That's an average of 400 thefts per day.
Motor vehicle theft has a significant impact, as you might guess, on owners, law enforcement, and the insurance industry. The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates that auto theft costs Canadians more than $1.2 billion each year, including policing, health care costs, as well as the cost of non-insured thefts, legal costs, and out-of-pocket costs such as insurance and deductibles. It 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.
As you know, Bill C-26 proposes reform in three key areas: the creation of a distinct offence of theft of a motor vehicle; a new offence for altering, obliterating, or removing a vehicle identification number; and new offences for trafficking in, and possessing for the purpose of trafficking, property obtained by crime, including the importing or exporting of such goods.
The creation of a separate offence for car theft will send a clear message to car thieves that our justice system is determined to fight against car theft in Canada.
Our proposed offence would be a hybrid one, with a maximum penalty of 10 years' imprisonment on indictment and 18 months' imprisonment on summary conviction. There would also be a mandatory penalty of six months' imprisonment for a third and subsequent indictable offence.
As the bill is currently written, all three offences would have to have been dealt with as indictable matters. We will be proposing an amendment to have the first two offences proceeded on by either summary conviction or indictment, but the third offence would be proceeded on by way of indictment for the mandatory penalty.
This penalty is a balanced and moderate approach to repeat offences of a serious nature. This penalty sends a message that the criminal justice system will not tolerate auto theft, and the inclusion of a mandatory penalty in the proposed offence for repeat offenders will help restore public confidence in our criminal justice system.
We're also proposing to create an offence for wholly or partially altering, obliterating, or removing a VIN--a vehicle identification number--on a motor vehicle. Under the new amendments, anyone convicted of tampering with a VIN would face imprisonment for a term of up to five years on indictment, or six months or a fine of not more than $2,000, or both, on summary conviction.
An advantage that both the new VIN tampering offence and the new, distinct motor vehicle theft offence would have over the current offence used to cover these activities, which is now “possession of property obtained by crime”, is that a conviction for these new offences would more clearly and accurately document a person's involvement in an organized vehicle theft ring as part of their criminal record. I think that's very important for crown attorneys across this country. This in turn would help the police to deal more appropriately with those offenders in subsequent investigations and prosecutions.
I will turn from a focus on auto theft to the proposed trafficking offences. These proposed trafficking offences are intended to target more broadly the entire marketing chain that processes the proceeds of theft and other property crimes, such as fraud. They will, however, also address the auto theft problem: trafficking in property obtained by crime includes the movement of stolen automobiles and their parts. This is the area in which organized crime is most involved in auto theft, either through car theft rings, chop shops that dismantle stolen cars for parts, the act of changing the VIN on a car to hide its identity, or sophisticated international rings that smuggle stolen high-end luxury cars from Canada to far-flung locations in Africa, the Middle East, and eastern Europe, to name but a few.
Currently section 354 of the Criminal Code, the general offence of possession of property obtained by a crime, which carries a maximum of 10 years' imprisonment for property valued over $5,000, is the principal Criminal Code offence now used to address trafficking in property obtained by crime. This simple possession offence does not, however, adequately capture the full range of activities involved in trafficking. The trafficking offences will capture all of the players in a trafficking operation such as a chop shop, whereas the offence of possession of property obtained by crime applies only to those who are in possession of the stolen property, such as stolen cars. By their very nature, operations such as chop shops usually have very little inventory at any given time in order to avoid detection and reduce the probability of multiple counts in the event of an arrest.
Both of the proposed new trafficking offences would also have higher penalties than the existing offence of possession of property obtained by crime, because trafficking is a more serious matter than simple possession. If the value of the item trafficked exceeds $5,000, anyone convicted of this offence could face up to 14 years. If the value is $5,000 or less, it could be a hybrid offence and subject to imprisonment for up to five years on indictment or six months on summary conviction.
I am pleased that the trafficking offences would also make available to the Canada Border Services Agency the necessary authority to allow them to obtain property, including stolen cars about to be exported from Canada, in order to determine whether they are stolen and to allow the relevant police agency to recover them. I think this is a huge step forward.
Mr. Chair, my government is committed to taking the necessary steps to combat property crime, especially auto theft, and this legislation will be a strong measure to help law enforcement and prosecutors deal with criminals who commit auto theft or traffic in property obtained by crime.
Canadians want to see this legislation passed, and I look forward to working collaboratively to ensure its speedy passage into law.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
Mr. Minister, thank you for being here.
We had a few kicks at this subject in the last Parliament. I'm just trying to summarize. The way I understand it, we had Bill C-53 and Bill C-64 in previous parliaments. This bill, Bill C-26, attempts to combine those aspects of Bill C-53, which dealt with auto theft and trafficking, and Bill C-64, which dealt with the vehicle identification number issue. As I get it, this bill modernizes, really, section 183 of the Criminal Code by allowing the interception of private communications, or electronic surveillance, to be added as a tool for the police with respect to the proposed section 333.1, which is the object here. Of course, in the last go-round we had witnesses from various municipalities, the insurance bureau, and police forces, who were all in favour of it. There was general acceptance of the principles behind the bill.
I'm more or less trying to clean up and understand what this bill is, what it adds to the other two bills I mentioned, and maybe ask tiny questions not about the innocent obliterator of a VIN. There is a common law offence of colour of right, or whatever it is, that allows the mistaken or honest body parts person to have obliterated part or all of a VIN. It was more specific in the previous legislation and it's not as specific here. Maybe I could get something from you, Minister, that this is protected. Clearly, no one wants to get people into the net who might have a valid excuse for obliterating part of a VIN.
The follow-up question is, since we're dealing with chop shops as related to organized crime, many parts themselves have identification numbers on them. Why not have the act apply to parts of cars? The VIN is just in one place, as far as I know--it's not really my background. It's on one place near the windshield. If it's throughout the vehicle, that's an answer in itself, I think. I think I read somewhere that it's not everywhere, but it's on certain parts, and it's not clear from the act that it applies to all parts of the vehicle.
Thank you, Mr. Minister, for coming.
I was just given a news article that I think brings to light why we need to bring in this type of legislation. Just last night, four people were injured after a stolen SUV ran a red light and slammed into a TTC bus shelter in downtown Toronto. Just before this occurred, there was another accident involving this stolen vehicle--it wasn't an accident; it was a collision, not an accident. People were injured. Police officers in Toronto use bicycles on patrol, so two police officers on bicycles attempted to stop the SUV, and you can imagine the kinds of life-threatening injuries that would occur there. Those who think property crime in and of itself does not incur the probability and possibility of bodily injury need to refresh their memory with the newscast that they will probably see tonight.
You may wish to comment on this also: in addition to that, the Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates that auto theft costs us all more than a billion dollars each year. That's taking into account health care, the injuries sustained, court time, policing costs, and legal out-of-pocket costs, and for those people unfortunate enough to have their vehicles stolen, there are deductibles, so there's a double whammy: their insurance costs go up, and there are deductibles.
The other thing I'd like you to comment on, Mr. Minister, is something you spoke about I think on a couple of occasions today, which is that a lot of auto theft is directly related to organized crime and the fact that high-end automobiles are put in containers, put in our ports, and sent overseas.
Could you comment on those two items?
You've hit the nail on the head, Mr. Norlock, about the problem. I hear it wherever I go in the country. I heard quite a bit of it in western Canada, for instance, when I visited a number of the cities out there. Auto theft is high on the list of the challenges they face.
Interestingly enough, there have been some innovative approaches in Winnipeg and other communities to try to intercept or break up the activity that has become a major problem for them. We're working hand in hand with them, and those jurisdictions that have found this to be a particular problem have been most welcoming of this.
Dave Chomiak, Attorney General of Manitoba, pointed out just how archaic some of the provisions are in the Criminal Code. He says there's a separate provision for stealing a cow, but there is nothing about stealing a car. As members of the justice committee--and as an ex officio member of that committee, and I thank you for that--we have the responsibility of continuously making sure our laws are up to date, so again I think it will be welcomed.
With respect to organized crime, they're telling me that the Canada Border Services agents didn't have authority unless they believed it was a prohibited good. Well, a car in a container is not a prohibited good, so these things were moving in and out of the country. The situation was very problematic, so as you heard in my opening comments, I made specific reference.
Again, it's not strictly justice-related; everything to do with the Canada Border Services Agency is with the public safety minister, but I think it had to go hand in hand with this particular legislation so that the people at our borders have the ability to try to break up this kind of activity. As was the case with identity theft, it's a more complete addressing of what has become a challenge in this country, and I've have had basically nothing but positive feedback.
And thank you, Mr. Minister, and your officials for your attendance here today.
I'd certainly like to commend the Department of Justice and you, Mr. Minister, for all of the hard work you've done with respect to safe streets and safe communities. You've had a busy legislative session, as has the committee.
As you know, the committee has undertaken to study organized crime, and we've travelled to Vancouver. Based on Mr. Ménard's motion, we are studying the prospect of identifying certain organized criminal enterprises and naming them, and the possibility of therefore not making the crown go through the step of having to prove they are performing a criminal activity in order to get convictions. So I commend you. We're working hard to try to take the bite out of organized crime.
What we heard when we were in Vancouver and what we continue to hear from police and from other experts is that we need to take the enterprise out of the enterprise. We need to take the profit motive out of organized crime if we're going to get to the bottom of it.
I forget which one of my colleagues asked the question, but in your answer you referred to the fact that there is a separate offence for theft of a cow but not for theft of an automobile. Of course we have offences for theft over and under $5,000 currently. I want to know how specifically that this offence, theft of an automobile--and I understand there will be increased sentences--will help law enforcement in their continued struggle against organized crime.
Monsieur Petit, thank you very much for your question on this.
I view this bill as just updating the Criminal Code, just bringing it into the 21st century. The situation is how many people are possessing the stolen goods? This is one of the main vehicles to get at these people. Are you possessing stolen goods? Well, you might have 30 people involved with this operation. How many people are possessing it? They say, “Oh, try to pin it on that guy.” Then he says, ”Well, it wasn't me, it was the guy farther down the line. It was the guy outside--he possessed it.” It's all very difficult.
All police agencies have been telling me the same thing, that it's very difficult under existing laws to sort of break up these operations. So what we have done and what previous bills have done to try to get this is to get all the activity, so you get everybody all the way along that has been participating in this organized crime, this gang-related activity, and this is why we have this part of it. Again, I don't have direct responsibility for Canada Border Services Agency, but giving them the ability to get involved with this, to break up this activity is just what we need.
This is the challenge we have, Mr. Chairman, and I've said this before. We have a Criminal Code in this country that was compiled in 1892. As I say to people, it's not as though it was brand new in 1892. They were compiling various statutes. Some of the sections I've talked about on another bill--on prize fighting I think--came from the 1700s. So the challenge we have is to try to make these laws fit what's happening today. We have changes in technology. We have people who are becoming sophisticated in this, and again, that's the challenge we all have--to try to meet the needs of law-abiding Canadians, and this is what we are trying to do with this bill and indeed all the bills we have before Parliament.