I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The country and in particular the major cities and urban areas are plagued at present by an avalanche of crime, lawlessness and vandalism. The crimes of robbery and burglary have reached epidemic proportions. No house, business premises or home is safe. For many citizens their homes have become virtual fortresses to be guarded night and day from attack and break-in and these realities have been referred to in this House quite often in recent times. People have to leave somebody to mind their houses night and day. If a person goes to a funeral, a wedding or to any other occasion and where it might appear that their house will be empty, it is very likely that the premises will be broken into.
A new sense of anxiety and fear stalks the community. The knock on the door of the home of the elderly person or woman living alone now often means the beginning of a frightening experience. Even those people who have not yet fallen victim to this crime wave pay indirectly through a doubling of the cost of home and motor insurance and the cost of extra security. People throughout the community have to make special arrangements to protect their homes and businesses and they have to provide additional security which is now regarded as a normal cost and expense. Thus, the public are paying threefold for the Minister's failure to deal effectively with crime. We have to pay through income tax, we are the victims of crime and now we are paying extra insurance costs at all levels.
While the Minister for Justice speaks publicly about slight reductions in the overall level of indictable crime from the record level of 102, 387 in 1983, the real problem is the massive increase in the level of crime during the past six years. Total indictable crime rose from 62,000 in 1978 to 99,727 in 1984. That is taking a year after the peak year of 1983 when the figure was over 102,000.
The total increase in the general level of crime is something beyond party politics and it is something the Minister has been very slow to recoganise as being outside the ambit of party policies. It is something about which all of us are concerned. It is not a matter for public relations statements to the effect that there has been a 2.5 per cent or 2.6 per cent decrease in crime from the peak year of 1983. What we are faced with is the total level of crime as we experience it in society today and, as I have indicated, that has grown out of all proportion in the past six years.
The bulk of this crime is burglary and larceny which together account for the figure of 94,184 or 93 per cent of all crime. The following figures show how important this kind of crime is to the community. Total indictable crime is 97,727 and crimes of burglary, larceny and robbery amount to 94,184. That figure is made up of 35,228 burglaries, 1,129 aggravated burglaries, 1,1799 robberies, 79 robberies with arms and 55,947 larcenies. I mentioned these figures to show the extent to which the larceny and burglary affects the crime situation. It is the major content of indictable crime and it is clear that any steps that can be taken to deter or detect this kind of crime will have a major impact on the total level of crime experienced today. If we can reduce the level of larceny and burglary we will bring back sanity and peace to our streets and our homes.
One way to do this is to reduce the market for stolen goods. Of course there are other ways and we will discuss them on another day. The Minister will have our support in any measures he takes to reduce the general level of crimes but one way in which it can be done is to reduce the market for stolen goods. It is well known that crime today pays. It is unlikely that the offences will be detected. For instance, in the Dublin Metropolitan Area only one larceny in every four was detected in 1984 — the figure is 24 per cent. Some 75 per cent of larcenies went undetected and the perpetrators went scot-free. That is the reality. People are getting away with crime and it is paying them in money terms.
It is when we look at the value of these stolen goods that we realise the full extent of the business side of crime in Ireland today. It is big business. During the same six year period the total value of property stolen has increases steadily from £10.3 million in 1978 to £34.5 million in 1984. There has been a steady increase each year in that period. The sum increased from £10.3 million to £11.5 million. In 1981 the figure was £20 million, in 1982 it was £29 million, in 1983 some unusual items were included and the figure increased to £43 million and in 1984, which was the last year reported, the figure was £34.5 million.
The value of goods recovered amounted to only £2.57 million in 1984 or 7.5 per cent. The recovery rate is extremely small. Some £32 million of stolen goods were not recovered. They found their way into the legal market and the criminals involved had a lucrative turnover, a turnover that would tax all the energies of the major corporations to handle and to distribute such volume of business. The majority of burglaries today do not yield cash. The thief has to settle for goods such as jewellery, videos, stereos, electrical equipment, silverware and other valuables. If he is to continue in business he needs to find dishonest handlers or fences to receive the goods. Stolen goods must be stored, hidden and transported to their destination. They must be sold with the proceeds being laundered back into society, because the ultimate objective is to make money that can be used for other purposes.
The legislation to deal with this problem is well out of date and requires amendment. That is why Fianna Fáil have put forward this Larceny (Amendment) Bill. The Bill is designed to update the law in this important area of crime, to close the loopholes that have been identified, to strengthen the hand of the Garda in detecting and in prosecuting and to curb this incrative business of dealing in and handling stolen goods. We are seeking in the Bill to have some legislative action taken in this area, action that we believe would be helpful and which could have a major impact in reducing crime in this area and making such crime less worthwhile.
The Minister would be wise to stop tinkering with the crime statistics and to address the real problem. The value of stolen property has trebled and this has been reflected in the cost of insurance to the law abiding citizen. In this fourth year in office, the Minister is still found wanting with the public once again carrying the cost. The law which governs the crime of receiving stolen goods is the Larceny Act of 1916 but this has long been regarded as obsolete and ineffective by judges, lawyers, the Garda and undoubtedly by the criminal. One distinguished judge of the Circuit Court, Judge Frank Martin, when dealing with criminal cases highlighted repeatedly the inadequacies of section 33 of that Act and called for an amendment to create an offence of handling stolen goods. It is not as if this was something new. The Garda have been seeking increased powers in this area and the courts have been calling for action. Clearly, a general review and updating of our criminal law, with all its antiquated distinctions between felonies, misdemeanours, penal servitude and imprisonment, is long overdue. When we are returned to Government we will embark on such a process and it will include a codification of the criminal law in this area. However, the extent of the review required will mean that such a process will take some time but the criminal can be relied on to exploit to the full any delay. Any change that can render it easier for the Garda to deal with the current crisis and which can be enacted now ought to be enacted now. There is every reason for taking steps at this time to close these various loopholes.
There are a number of obvious deficiencies in the present law. While it is an offence to receive stolen property knowing it to have been stolen, it is not an offence to receive such property believing it to have been stolen. It is more difficult to prove that a person knew an item to be stolen than to prove that he believed the item was stolen. It is an offence only to receive the stolen property. It is not an offence to receive or handle the proceeds of the sale of stolen property. Surely the proceeds of the sale of stolen property should come within the ambit of the Act. In every receiving case the onus is on the prosecution to prove that a person found in the possession of stolen property knew at the time he received the property that it was stolen but that onus is very difficult to discharge.
To sustain a prosecution for receiving stolen property it is necessary to prove that the property was received by the accused into his possession. Under the present law only a very small proportion of the types of activity involved in the disposal of stolen property could lead to a successful prosecution.
The law provides that certain criminal activities, such as being in a building with intent to commit a felony, are offences only if committed at night and "night" is defined as being between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. In the matter of stealing, even of house breaking, the offences can be committed readily by day and certainly outside the hours of 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. The specifying of those hours indicates the nature of society at the time the legislation was enacted. It is interesting that burglary was regarded then as the very serious crime of breaking and entering by night. Up to the last century the crime was punishable by death. The punishable by death aspect has been removed in the meantime but the by night aspect has remained as an anachronism in the law.
The law as enacted in 1916 did not provide for the modern sophisticated equipment used by burglars and thieves today nor did it envisage the use of such disguises as crash helmets and balaclavas.
Time has passed and the criminals in their own industry have used different methods and different equipment. To that extent the law is lagging far behind. This makes the job of the Garda extremely difficult in relation to proving that someone was engaged in the business of larceny or burglary and in particular that instruments carried by an accused were carried for the purpose of such an offence.
It is a matter for the House to provide remedies for the problem. The remedies we purpose are in relation, first, to the handling of stolen property. Our Bill proposes to remedy these deficiencies. We are proposing that the handling of stolen property, knowing or believing it to have been stolen, replace the present offence. This would penalise not only receivers but also those who convey stolen property to any place after a theft and also those who would take charge of or hide the property or those who would negotiate for the sale of it.
The present law provides only for the offence of stealing or receiving stolen property. There is no offence in regard either to handling the stolen goods or to handeling the proceeds of the sale of them. The new definition would include a person who in the course of his otherwise innocent employment criminally removes stolen property — for example, a dishonest driver employed by a dishonest haulier. If a driver becomes involved in a dishonest way in handling the goods and is an essential link in distributing them or in hiding them he would be commiting an offence. Our Bill proposes to bring within the ambit of the offence not only a person who knew that the goods he received were stolen but also the one who believed them to have been stolen.
In addition to extending the scope of the activity necessary to involve a criminal sanction we are proposing also to extend the scope of what constitutes stolen property. It is intolerable that a person who handles the proceeds of the sale of stolen property, knowing or believing he is doing just that, is immune from prosecution. Our Bill would close that loophole.
Another matter is the question of the burden of proof. Under our criminal law the onus of proving guilt rests, as a general rule, with the prosecution as opposed to the onus of establishing innocence resting with the defence. In general that is a good rule and should be preserved, but there are exceptions. For example, under section 28 of the present Larceny Act once it is proved that a person has been found by night in possession of housebreaking implements there is an onus on him to advance a lawful excuse for that possession. A similar situation exists in certain cases involving persons found in possession of instruments for use in forgery. Until the courts decided otherwise in 1966 in the case of the People versus Oglesby it was generally thought that a similar rule applied to persons found in possession of recently stolen goods. Obviously it was considered up to that time that the same rule applied where the goods were recently stolen. In the Oglesby case the accused was tried and convicted in the Dublin Circuit Court on a charge of receiving a tape recorder, the property of Córas Iompair Éireann, knowing it to have been stolen. The tape recorder had been removed from a car on 4 March 1965 and was found in the accused's house on 15 May 1965. The accused informed the Garda that he had purchased the recorder from a man in a pub. We have heard that story fairly often, or that something fell off the back of a lorry. The trial judge, Judge Conroy, gave a full direction to the jury on the burden of proof and informed the jury that if they rejected the explanation of the accused as to his possession of the recorder they were entitled to convict. On the application by the accused for leave to appeal it was held by the Court of Criminal Appeal that the trial judge's directions to the jury were unsatisfactory because his remarks made in the course of his charge might have caused the jury to think the issue which they had to try was whether they accepted or rejected the explanation given by the accused and that if they rejected it they should convict.
Decisions given before the year 1935 in relation to the so-called doctrine of recent possession in receiving cases, in so far as they decide that an onus of proof lies on an accused person in possession of goods which have been recently stolen to give an explanation or in so far as they decide that the jury may convict if they reject the explanation given, must now be regarded as incorrect. The Woolmington case in 1935 applies in that case — AC462.
The so-called doctrine of recent possession does not shift or discharge the onus which rests on the prosecution of proving that on all the evidence the accused was guilty.
The so-called doctrine of recent possession does not exist. It is a convenient way of referring to inferences of fact which, in the absence of a satisfactory explanation, may be drawn as a matter of common-sense from other facts.
When a person charged with receiving goods knowing them to be stolen gives an explanation in answer to the charge, it is the duty of the trial judge to state to the jury what the explanation was. He may then comment on it.
It is evident that the decision brought to an end reliance on the so-called doctrine of recent possession as a prosecution weapon in the fight against crime. This effectively brought about a major change as far as the powers of the Garda were concerned in relation to the doctrine of recent possession of stolen goods and adversely affected their position in relation to obtaining prosecutions. Still nothing has been done about that.
I retrieved from the Library the report on crime of the Commissioner of the Garda Síochána for the year ended 30 September 1966. It makes very interesting reading. The total number of offences recorded was 19,029, In 1983 the figure passed 100,000 and in 1984 the figure was marginally under 100,000 — over 99,000. That is the kind of change we see in our society when we walk in the streets. They may not have been quite so excited about larceny and the handling of stolen goods in the sixties and seventies but in recent times this has become a major problem, especially in urban areas. Perhaps that is why no action was taken in the early years. We are now in a totally different crime situation which cannot be dealt with by small changes here and there.
We are putting to the House the changes proposed by this Bill. Section 33 (a) (2) of this Bill goes some way to reinstate that doctrine. The essential ingredients are (a) property recently stolen, (b) found in the accused's possession, (c) without a satisfactory explanation. These three elements will now constitute sufficient evidence that an accused knew or believed the property to be stolen at the time he handled it. This provision would make common-sense. It would merely provide that once a prosecution have established in any handling case that the accused was found in possession of property recently stolen there would be an onus on the accused to provide a satisfactory explanation of how he came to be in possession of the property. Such a rule would not prejudice the innocent man. He would merely have to explain that when he obtained the property he did not know or believe it to be stolen. It would certainly facilitate the conviction of the guilty man who would not be able to furnish a plausible explanation which would establish his innocence. Only persons found in possession of recently stolen property would be affected. We are satisfied that the introduction of such a rule of evidence would be of enormous assistance to the Garda in their fight against those who seek to profit dishonestly from the misfortunes of others. This Bill contains such a proposal.
One blatant anachronism in the present Act is the assumption that robberies and burglaries are committed at night. It is an offence for a person to be found at night with his face blackened with the intent to commit such offences. It is an offence to be found at night with housebreaking implements. Regardless of what the situation was 70 years ago, crime is now an around-the-clock activity and probably more burglaries happen during the day than at night. The advent of the balaclava and the crash helmet has lessened the necessity to use shoe polish to blacken the face. Times have changed but the law has not. This Bill will remedy and update the law in these respects. Regardless of time of day or night it will be an offence for a person to be found with his face disguised or concealed in order to facilitate or evade the consequences of a robbery or burglary or other such offence. Possession of housebreaking implements — the crow, the pick lock and the jack of Victorian times — will still remain an offence. It will also be an offence to be found with modern, more sophisticated implements made or adapted for use in the commission of not only offences such as robberies and burglaries but also the unlawful taking of or interference with motor vehicles. That is why we have the references to sections 112 and 113 of the Road Traffic Act, 1961, in order to tie in the equipment which would be used in going about by day or by night for the breaking and entering and the stealing of goods from cars.
Tracing stolen property — section 33 (B) of the proposed amendments extends the limits to which stolen property may be traced. Under this section the definition of "stolen property" includes not alone stolen property but any transmutation of the stolen property. For example, a stolen painting may be swapped for a BMW car. At that stage, by virtue of the provisions of section 33 (B), the BMW will represent the stolen property in the hands of either the thief or the handler. All the provisions which would attach to the stolen property will attach to the property representing the stolen property, in this case the BMW. Explanation will be required as to how it came into the possession of the person charged. That is particularly important because we have seen many examples of people who organise and arrange crime who will not be caught with the stolen property itself in their possession. They will ensure that it is the proceeds or the realisation of the stolen property which they have. At present it is not an offence to have these proceeds in one's possession. In our Bill we are proposing that it should be an offence to have the proceeds and to have any transmutation of the stolen property included as such stolen property in the hands of the handlers, the fences or any of the people along the line, including of course the thief himself or indeed herself.
There is a great need for codification and change. The remaining sections of the Bill are of a technical nature covering consequential amendments and transitional provisions. The offence of handling is a completely new one. It is not contained in any of our Acts at present and would henceforth carry penalties. Therefore we are saying, in section 4.33 (2) (a) that a person guilty of handling stolen property shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £1,000 or, at the discretion of the court, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or to both the fine and the imprisonment; or (b) on conviction on indictment to a fine not exceeding £5,000 or, at the discretion of the court, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years, or to both the fine and imprisonment. Those are the penalties we propose for the handling offences, the handling of stolen goods or their proceeds.
We know that no amount of piecemeal amendment can replace an overall examination of the criminal law, even if limited to offences against property and its possession, which will result in a codification of the law. It is fair to say that the criminal law is now a labyrinth of Acts, amendment and amendment of amendment which taxes even the skills of those expert in its administration. The law, and in particular the criminal law, must be accessible to lawyer and criminal alike. It goes without saying that it must be accessible to the legislator without the need for experts to tread a clear passage to understanding. The way to this understanding is through codification.
The primary statute dealing with the stealing of property is the Larceny Act, 1916, which, to give it its full title: "An Act to solidate and simplify the Law relating to Larceny triable on Indictment and Kindred Offences." That Act has served the State well in the prosecution to conviction of persons committing any of the offences set out in that Act. Naturally the changes which have taken place in society in the 70 years of the statute's existence have rendered parts of that Act less effective, both as a result of the wiliness of the criminal mind as much as the changes in the judicial interpretation. The fact that the Act has lost some of its effectiveness in itself is sufficient reason to amend and update its provisions. The British Larceny Act had full force and effect in the United Kingdom until the passage of their Theft Act in 1968. They changed their Larceny Act in 1968 when they had growing problems at that time in relation to larceny and burglary.
As I have pointed out with the benefit of statistics, the problems here were not of such a great order at that time. Perhaps we could excuse those who went before us at that time for not changing this Act in that period. For example, the total number of offences of larceny in 1966 was 11,791. However, things have changed drastically since then. We have lagged very seriously behind, particularly bearing in mind the tremendous increase in this area of crime over the past five or six years. In the United Kingdom the Larceny Act had been found to be lacking. Rather than engage in piecemeal reform the United Kingdom Parliament replaced the Larceny Act with a new comprehensive Act. Therefore they introduced their Theft Act in 1968 and comprehensively updated the whole area of larceny.
The provisions of our Bill will not end the dishonest handling of stolen goods but will lead to the conviction of many criminals who are today virtually immune from prosecution, and who know it. These provisions will lead to the recovery of stolen goods and their proceeds. We are recovering approximately only 7½ per cent of stolen goods and that is not sufficient. The present situation, in which without an admission of guilt it is virtually impossible to convict the dishonest handler, particularly if he appears to be a pillar of society, cannot be allowed to continue.
Whether in Government or in Opposition Fianna Fáil would be failing in their duty to the people if we did not do all in our power to bring these criminals to justice. The Government, who have failed already to introduce the necessary legislation, will be compounding that failure if they obstruct our efforts. I ask them to put the national interest first, to leave aside party political considerations and to join us in the fight against crime. The Minister may well contend that there are some technical matters on which he would have particular views in relation to this Bill and that he would like to suggest amendments of one type or another. Any Bill that comes before this House is subjected to some form of amendment in the course of its passage. Indeed some of the Minister's previous Bill were subjected to a great deal of amendment. We all put a great deal of time into those amendments and supported the Minister in that work. If the Minister has any amendments we shall be quite happy to consider them and ascertain whether it is possible to reach agreement on the provisions of this Bill.
It is time we showed people outside this House that the whole question of crime — and this Bill must surely cover one of the major areas of crime affecting our society today — is being tackled. Surely we can work together in order to find a solution in this instance. We have put forward a proposal here, a Bill to deal with this problem which in our view would have a very great effect on crime today. We ask the Minister and the Government to give it their support and to join with us in defeating and reducing this kind of crime.