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Speech at Second Reading of Bill C-343, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (motor vehicle theft)

Honourable senators, Bill C-343, an act to amend the Criminal Code, theft of a motor vehicle, which has come to us from the other place, creates a specific and distinct offence for theft of a motor vehicle. It also amends the Criminal Code to provide for maximum punishments for persons convicted of motor vehicle theft.

At present, auto theft crimes are not treated any differently in the Criminal Code than other property crimes. This bill, which was passed unanimously in the House, is directed at combating the high rate of auto theft in Canada and should be supported. I am sure we can all agree that reducing the rate of auto theft will make Canadian streets safer and target a major source of profits for criminal organizations.

Honourable senators, auto theft in Canada must be reduced. Statistics Canada reports that more than 160,000 cars were stolen in 2005. The rate of auto theft, while declining since 1996, is still 56 per cent higher than two decades ago. Recent declines may be due to a combination of anti-theft devices in newer vehicle models as well as police programs designed to reduce theft, such as the use of bait cars. It is important to note that on September 1, 2007, Transport Canada enacted a requirement that new vehicles in Canada must be equipped with immobilizers, which makes it nearly impossible to steal a new car without the keys.

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While programming and an increased focus by law enforcement are critical components of a strategy aimed at reducing auto theft, a truly effective strategy needs strong laws that provide additional tools to law enforcement and prosecutors. The bill, as amended, now mirrors the maximum penalty provided in the general theft defence, that is, 10 years on indictment.

The rate of motor vehicle theft across this country is quite varied. Cities such as Regina and Winnipeg are reported as having very high rates of motor vehicle theft, while centres such as Toronto and Quebec City have comparatively lower rates. Nonetheless, motor vehicle theft is a substantial concern.

Auto theft is not a uniform phenomenon across Canada. For example, in Winnipeg auto theft is predominantly a youth crime issue. In other areas, such as the Lower Mainland of B.C., auto theft is tied to drug abuse where drug users steal cars in order to fund their drug habit. In other cities, especially those with ports, such as Montreal, there is a stronger link to auto theft by organized crime. The cars may be given a new vehicle identification number and sold under a different identity within Canada, broken down and sold for parts or exported from Canada for sale overseas.

In October 2007, in the Speech from the Throne, the government undertook to address the serious issue of property crime, including auto theft. Bill C-343 does not discharge the government of this undertaking and, as mentioned in the Speech from the Throne, the government is committed to following through. A bill will soon be brought to the House of Commons on this matter.

It is a commonly cited statistic that motor vehicle theft costs Canadians over $1 billion a year in insurance, health care, court, policing and out-of-pocket expenses such as deductibles. While the financial cost of auto theft is a serious concern, an additional concern is the dangerous driving that often results from the commission of a car theft. Dangerous driving can and does result in serious injury and death to innocent Canadians.

Every year motor vehicle theft contributes to a significant number of injuries and loss of life. In Ontario, between 1991 and 1999 there were 2,415 reported injuries and 33 deaths as a consequence of police pursuits. Over half of these pursuits involved stolen motor vehicles.

Research has shown that youth involved in motor vehicle theft sometimes encourage police pursuits to escalate the thrill of the ride. In Manitoba, in 2000, six people were killed and five had injuries requiring long-term care as a result of accidents involving stolen vehicles. Another 68 suffered less serious injuries. Nationally, at least 34 deaths in 1999 and 24 deaths in 2000 resulted from stolen vehicles.

There is also a trend in Canada in which auto theft is shifting away from random criminal acts towards more organized criminal activity. The recovery rate for stolen cars is on the decline. For example, in Toronto over 90 per cent of stolen cars used to be found and returned. That rate is now less than 70 per cent. In Quebec, less than 50 per cent of stolen cars are recovered. Out of the 173 automobiles stolen every year police and insurance experts estimate 20,000 of these cars are being shipped abroad to destinations such as Eastern Europe, West Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

Theft rings are insidious organizations that the government is determined to fight. They tend to be complex organizations made up of brokers who hire middlemen who in turn hire thieves to steal cars. The role of organized crime in auto theft raises yet another serious crime issue, which is the role that young offenders play in motor vehicle theft. Almost 40 per cent of those charged for stealing a motor vehicle are between the ages of 12 and 17, and oftentimes cars are stolen for joyriding. Increasingly, organized crime is recruiting youth for their operations.

Youths are recruited to steal the cars and deliver them to middlemen, while the criminals at the upper levels of the organization are insulated from the risk of getting caught. Auto theft is a gateway crime that introduces youths to a criminal lifestyle. Very often youths graduate to more serious violent crimes and ultimately become career criminals as adults.

The government has introduced a number of pieces of legislation that aim to crack down on serious criminal offences. The government has proven its commitment to combat dangerous driving by introducing Bill C-19, which created five new offences to combat street racing and also provided for mandatory minimum periods of driving prohibitions. The Senate supported this bill and it received Royal Assent on December 14, 2006.

Bill C-343 would create a separate, distinct offence for motor vehicle theft. One compelling reason for the creation of a distinct offence is that it would make the criminal justice system more efficient in tracking this sort of criminal activity. Currently, a prosecutor is often unaware whether an offender is a career car thief and normally this offender is simply charged with theft over $5,000 and there is no indication on the record as to the type of property stolen. The creation of a distinct offence would help to give the courts a clearer picture of the nature of the offender for bail hearings or when it comes to handing down a sentence.

Honourable senators, I support the goal of Bill C-343 and I urge all of you to do the same.