A Really Fun Episode 51 of the Ideablawg Podcasts on the Criminal Code of Canada: Official Documents & Identity, Identity, Who Am I?

With this episode, we enter a new phase of offences, still under Part II – Offences Against the Public Order, relating to official documents. “Official Documents” is the heading for three offences, found under sections 56.1 to 58, relating to misuse of and falsification of government issued identification. The term “official documents” is not a phrase used in any of these sections and is therefore not defined under the Code. It is however a phrase used and defined in some provincial statutes, such as in the Plant Health Act, RSNB 2011, c 204. Those definitions refer to a document signed by a Minister or other government official. Some federal statutes refer to the term but do not define the full phrase. Although, “document” is often defined in statutes such as in the 2012 federal Safe Food for Canadians Act. These definitions tend to be very broad and define “document” as “anything on which information that is capable of being understood by a person, or read by a computer or other device, is recorded or marked.” Other statutes, most notably as under section 5 of the federal Security of Information Act, refer to “official documents” in sections on falsification and forgery of documents, which are similar to the Criminal Code offences we are about to discuss over the next three episodes.

Before we start discussing section 56.1, offences relating to identity documents, I have a comment to make on the numbering of this section. This section was placed in the Code in 2009 as a result of An Act to amend the Criminal Code (identity theft and related misconduct), where a number of new offences and revisions to pre-existing Code provisions were amended. Fair enough. My issue is why this section needed to be numbered as 56.1 and not say, section 57.1, which would connect this new section to the falsification or improper use of documents. Section 56, as I discussed in a previous episode, concerns offences relating to the RCMP as in deserting from your duty. It has nothing to do with official documents or identity. When the Code is amended, numbering should consider placement with like sections. This is another reason, I submit we need a total re-do of the Code, section numbering and all. I say this even though I have such a familiarity with Code sections that a new numbering system would be disarming. Enough said on this subject.

Section 56.1 offers us an offence under subsection (1), exceptions to the offence or what could be considered lawful excuses under subsection (2), and a somewhat lengthy definition under (3), and a punishment under subsection (4).

 Section 56.1(1) sets out the offence as follows:

Every person commits an offence who, without lawful excuse, procures to be made, possesses, transfers, sells or offers for sale an identity document that relates or purports to relate, in whole or in part, to another person.

The phrase “transfers, sells or offers for sale” is found in the older offence under s.368 “use, trafficking or possession of a forged document” which replaced previous versions of that section in the same amendment as the creation of the s. 56.1 offence. Possession is defined in the Code under s. 4(3) and is a subject of an earlier podcast that can be found here as text and here as the podcast audio file. The term “transfers” is used throughout the Criminal Code as an actus reus component of various offences such as those relating to firearms (i.e. s. 117.08) or relating to the transferring of nuclear material with intent such as under s. 82.3. The word “transfer” is the subject of statutory interpretation and the application of Dreidger’s “modern approach” in the 2004 Supreme Court of Canada decision of R v Daoust. Here the court was considering s. 462.31 known as the offence of “laundering” the proceeds of crime. The word “transfer” was examined both in English and in French (transfert) in effort to understand how “transfer” differed from the other prohibited acts listed in the section such as sends or delivers, transports or transmits. In the case, the accused was the purchaser of stolen goods and the issue was whether this act constituted a transfer.  Of interest to statutory interpretation aficionados is the use here of the associated words rule or noscuitur a sociis (say that quickly three times). After applying this rule, the court found that a buyer of stolen goods was not committing any of the prohibited acts under the section. The acts listed, including the “transfers of possession of,” depended on the person committing the acts having control over the stolen property or proceeds of crime. This person would then pass onto another the property and would be the person targeted in the offence, not the so-called receiver. However, the receiver could certainly be charged with other offences found in the Code such as possession of stolen property under section 354 of the Criminal Code.

Besides having to prove the actus reus element or the prohibited act as listed in the section, the Crown would also have to prove that the item is in fact an identity document per the definition under subsection (3) which reads as follows:

For the purposes of this section, identity document means a Social Insurance Number card, a driver’s license, a health insurance card, a birth certificate, a death certificate, a passport as defined in subsection 57(5), a document that simplifies the process of entry into Canada, a certificate of citizenship, a document indicating immigration status in Canada, a certificate of Indian status or an employee identity card that bears the employee’s photograph and signature, or any similar document, issued or purported to be issued by a department or agency of the federal government or of a provincial or foreign government.

That lengthy list of documents could probably be summed up as simply any government issued ID. Further to our previous statutory interpretation segue, note that there is a descriptive list of identity documents and then a broad description encompassing “or any similar document.” Again, the associated word rule could be used to interpret this phrase giving the general phrase “colour” from the more specific terms. Another related rule can also be applied– get ready for another Latin phrase – involving ejusdem generis or the limited class rule. This applies when there are specific terms followed by a more general phrase. The rule limits the general phrase to the same class as the specifically enumerated ones. In this case, one can argue, as I did at the outset that “any similar document” would include any government issued identification.

Another element of the offence requires that the accused commit the offence “without lawful excuse.” There is no definition of this term, which is used liberally throughout the Criminal Code. In a search, the phrase pops up about 53 times. What constitutes a “lawful excuse” is many and varied. Typically, in cases considering the issue, the court says just that. For instance, in R v Osmond, 2006 NSPC 52 (CanLII), in considering s. 145(2)(b) of the Criminal Code, the offence of failing to appear in court, “without lawful excuse,” stated, rather unhelpfully at paragraph 45, that,

I do not need to list all the types of things that could constitute a lawful excuse.  The Crown referred to some possibilities in its submissions.  What can constitute a lawful excuse is usually established by judicial decisions and must be put in the context of the offence in question.

Judge Embree continued to say that what “lawful excuse” is “definitely” not is “forgetting” to attend court. In the context of this section, if the person “lawfully” has the government issued ID of another person or has it for a “lawful” purpose, there is no offence. To perhaps clarify this phrase, we can look to subsection 2 for some “lawful excuses” as contemplated by subsection 1. Subsection 2 reads as follows:

(2) For greater certainty, subsection (1) does not prohibit an act that is carried out

(a) in good faith, in the ordinary course of the person’s business or employment or in the exercise of the duties of their office;

(b) for genealogical purposes;

(c) with the consent of the person to whom the identity document relates or of a person authorized to consent on behalf of the person to whom the document relates, or of the entity that issued the identity document; or

(d) for a legitimate purpose related to the administration of justice.

There are a couple of items to note. First, the subsection starts with the qualifier “for greater certainty.” This phrase appears 48 times in the Criminal Code. Sometimes the phrase is followed by exceptions to the offence, such as in this section we are considering. Other times, it clarifies what act is included in the offence, such as in the definition of terrorist activity under s. 83.01. Therefore, in accordance with (2), we have a few scenarios to contemplate as not attracting criminal liability. Such as under (2)(b), where the possession of another person’s identity document is permissible if for “genealogical purposes.” What immediately comes to mind are the various websites which provide services to those people interested in finding information on their ancestors, such as ancestry.ca. For example, I have my grandfather’s identity documents issued when he entered the country as an immigrant from Russia in 1912. I found them, by the way, digitized online through Library and Archives Canada, a federal government service. However, this “exemption” and indeed this section does not protect the possession and use of another person’s DNA. Considering the now booming business in collecting and testing DNA for those “inquiring minds” who need to know what percentage of their DNA is Neanderthal, this seems to be a gap in our legislative identity protections. In light of this, section 56.1 seems to be already dated, although a good example of how quickly our technology is expanding and the difficulty with our laws to anticipate or even respond to these increasingly complex issues.

Returning to the original phrase “without lawful excuse,” there is a question as to whether the Crown has the burden to disprove this as an essential element of the offence or not. This would be akin to the Crown’s burden to disprove “without the consent” pursuant to the assault section 265. There is some authority to the contrary (R v Gladue, 2014 ABPC 45 (CanLII) and R v Neufeld, 2014 ABPC 66 (CanLII)), that “without lawful excuse” is not an “essential” element but “incidental” to the offence. This argument, however, relies upon a passage in a Supreme Court of Canada case, R v B(G), [1990] 2 SCR 30, 1990 CanLII 7308 (SCC), wherein the Court found the time of the offence was not an essential element of the offence. This, I suggest, differs greatly from a phrase that appears in the offence creating section. The better approach can be found in R v Plowman, 2015 ABQB 274 (CanLII). There, Justice Nielsen, in considering the phrase in section 56.1, found “without lawful excuse” places an evidential burden on the accused, as a “defence” to the charge. Thus, the accused need only point to evidence on the issue to establish an “air of reality”, thus requiring the trier of fact to consider the evidence in determining whether the Crown has proven the case beyond a reasonable doubt. The legal burden remains on the Crown to disprove the lawful excuse beyond a reasonable doubt.

The next issue is what the phrase in the offence “another person” means and whether it must refer to a “real” person, living or dead. In R v Vladescu, 2015 ONCJ 87 (CanLII), whether the identity documents in question related to a “real” person, was the sole issue. The Crown’s evidence did not touch on this aspect and the defence, arguing that proof of this aspect was an essential element of the offence, urged Justice Watson to acquit. Employing, what I would suggest is a questionable approach to statutory interpretation by focusing on the “plain meaning” of “purport” and comments made in one Senate debate on the new section which referenced “fictitious” identity documents, the Court decided that the Crown did not have to prove that the identity document belonged to a “real” person. Justice Watson convicted the accused despite the cogent argument by the defence that the subsection (2) exceptions, particularly the reference to genealogical purposes, suggests a real person. However, the offence of identity fraud under s. 403 uses the phrase “another person, living or dead” which suggests that Parliament, by omitting the phrase “living or dead” did contemplate fictitious identity documents under s. 56.1. Either way, this is an issue open to argument at trial.

In terms of the fault element or the mens rea required for this section. As indicated earlier, one of the ways of committing this offence is by “possession”, which as indicated is defined under section 4(3) of the Criminal Code. Possession requires proof of a high level of subjective mens rea. However, if the Crown relies on the other modes of committing the offence such as transfer or sells, an argument can be made that the intention, although still requiring subjective liability, does not require the high level of mens rea needed for possession. Therefore, recklessness would be sufficient form of mens rea for those situations.

 Finally, it should be mentioned that subsection (4) sets out the possible penalties for committing the offence. Procedurally, the offence can be either an indictable or summary conviction offence and is therefore a dual or hybrid offence. This means the Crown has the option to elect the mode of proceeding. Although proceeding under indictment carries a longer maximum sentence of five years as opposed to the maximum of 6 months imprisonment (and/or maximum fine of $5000.00 if the accused is an individual). Of course, should the Crown elect to proceed by indictment then the accused would have an election to have a trial in either provincial court or in superior court, with or without a preliminary hearing and with or without a jury pursuant to s. 536(2).