It’s almost a sure sign of a government in trouble when they start rolling out the law-and-order bills — never mind that some of them have some serious civil liberties implications.
“What they’re also trying to do is draw this line in the sand — they’re the tough guys on crime, we’re the soft guys on crime,” says gay Liberal MP Rob Oliphant, a member of the Commons public safety committee. “We’re not buying it. What they’re trying to do is change the channel away from the economy, away from their ministerial competence — away from all those things, to shore up their core support.”
The fact that the statistics don’t lend credence to the cries of a crisis of criminal justice in this country doesn’t seem to matter either.
“The reality is, we can see it — crime is dropping,” Oliphant says. “I was in Justice committee this week — auto theft is down, they’re coming out supporting a private members’ bill [about auto theft], and we’re watching cautiously as they move it. We’re trying to say the goal is not to be tough on crime, the goal is trying to be smart on crime.”
Yet the Conservatives are pressing ahead. Bill C-31 contains a rather worrying clause that would allow police to photograph and fingerprint people before charges are laid.
“That’s a very large bill, there’s many clauses, but regarding this specific power we would provide to the police officials, we are opposed to that,” says the Bloc’s justice critic, gay MP Réal Ménard.
“If the bill comes [to committee], we will be opposed except if the government accepts to withdraw this specific clause,” Ménard says, calling the provisions “unacceptable.”
The Conservatives have argued that police are asking for these powers to speed up their operations — especially in places like Vancouver, where there has been a rash of gang-related violence. These arguments appear to have some traction with the NDP.
“I would be tempted, or inclined to want to support it because we’re hearing from the police that this would assist them in speeding things up at the time of charge, but there are no protections in there,” says the NDP’s justice critic Joe Comartin.
Even more concerning than fingerprinting and photographing is the fact that as the bill is currently worded, those who have been fingerprinted but not charged would need to apply to the police to have those records destroyed, rather than have them destroyed automatically. Fingerprints and police photographs are on the public record, accessible across the country.
“My position is if we in fact can be convinced that this is necessary to be done, two protections have to be put into the bill,” Comartin says. “One, that there are charges within a specified period of time, and I’m not talking a lot — six hours or 12 hours. Secondly, if there is no charge, then it’s the responsibility of the police agency that has taken the fingerprints to destroy them immediately.”
Liberal justice critic Dominic Leblanc echoes Comartin’s comments and concerns.
“That being said, we’re going to support the bill on second reading and send it to committee,” Leblanc says. “I want to understand at the committee from police forces and prosecutors why they think they need that rather extraordinary power.”
“Our concern is that sometimes Mr Harper’s government adds stuff into the end of budget bills or omnibus crime bills,” Leblanc says. “They just throw in stuff that may have been the pet peeves of certain people or organizations. I just want to understand why this and why now?”
The BC Civil Liberties Association is also expressing concern about these provisions.
“Our concern is anytime you’re fingerprinting anyone who hasn’t been at least arrested, there’s nothing to stop police from lining up everyone that they want to fingerprint them,” says BCCLA executive director David Eby. “We think that collecting this kind of information from people is something that should be done only when it’s justifiable in terms of a criminal investigation and not as a general power of the police.”
They are even more concerned about the fact that those prints would not be destroyed if no charges are laid.
“It’s not appropriate to put a reverse onus like that on a citizen,” says Eby. “The onus should be on the government not to retain the records longer than they need them for. There should be a set statutory limitation period.” He adds that people who are disproportionately targeted by police tend be those who have challenges with English, and so they are unlikely to fill out a form to request the records be destroyed.
Oliphant says that if these bills come before his committee, he will keep a cautious eye on them.
“I am constantly trying to be vigilant about the human rights agenda, and making sure that people’s civil and human rights are protected,” Oliphant says. “Regardless if they’re offenders or not.”