Saturday, November 24, 2018

Canada's Stupid Witchcraft Law

For several years now, the Canadian government has been discussing the repeal of a law prohibiting "pretending to practice witchcraft." The law may finally be going away, but not before two more people were charged with the offense. The criminal cases themselves seem sound - according to the allegations, both defendants defrauded their clients using psychic and fortune-telling scams. My problem with the law is not that it prohibits scams, but rather that it carves out a special exception for "witchcraft-related" scams when it seems to me that what is going on is more properly fraud and can be handled under the same statutes.

Two Canadian women have been charged with pretending to practise witchcraft, breaking a little-known law in Canada's criminal code that could soon be out the door. The first charge was levied against Dorie "Madeena" Stevenson, a fortune teller from Milton, Ontario on 18 October after a months-long investigation. She is accused of defrauding a client of C$60,000 ($45,700; £35,700) in cash and property.

A week later, Toronto psychic Samantha Stevenson was also arrested in a similar but unrelated investigation. Police allege she convinced a man the only way to get rid of "evil spirits" in his home would be to sell it, and transfer the proceeds into her account.The accused often advertise themselves as a psychic or religious healer, and demand large sums of money to help remove curses or evil spirits from clients, police say.

"What we typically see is a tendency for perpetrators to take advantage of persons when they are in their most vulnerable state," wrote Det Sgt Dave Costantini of Halton Regional Police, in a press release. "Victims are manipulated into believing something bad will happen to them unless they remit cash. We even see incidents where victims are required to make purchases and remit these purchases in order to be cleansed. When victims cannot be squeezed any longer, the perpetrators rely on the victim's embarrassment in not contacting police."

The charges could lead to Canada's last witch trials, as the section of the law banning pretending to practise witchcraft will soon be repealed. In June 2017, the federal government proposed a bill repealing dozens of outdated sections of the criminal code, including the law against pretending to be a witch.

To be clear, if the allegations are true I don't have any problem with these folks being convicted. What I have a problem with is that there's a special law just for those who "fraudulently pretend to exercise or to use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration." Fraud, as I see it, is just fraud and should be charged accordingly. An example: if I'm a confidence artist and I defraud somebody with a stock-picking scam, should it matter whether I tell them I have a computer model picking the stocks or if I tell them I have a psychic doing it? Isn't fraud just fraud?

Also, as far as I know actually using "witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration" instead of "pretending" is not a legal defense against the law, even though according to the wording it should be - and that's just stupid. If we charge fraudsters with fraud regardless of witchcraft or whatever, that fixes everything. It deals with a case where someone with legitimate paranormal abilities tries to defraud someone - since I'm sure that does happen sometimes - in addition to cases where the fraudster in question is faking those abilities.

The article talks about the law being repealed soon, but I've been hearing that for years and people are still being charged with it. Police apparently like having the law on the books as an additional redundancy to charge people with in addition to fraud, but as a proponent of civil liberties I don't like that either. As I see it, criminal charges should be made against the infraction actually committed, not every single thing that a prosecutor thinks might stick concurrently.

So I hope this time the repeal sticks, because not only is the law stupid, it could in theory be used to prosecute some individuals simply for practicing their religion and/or spirituality.

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