An old “zombie law” suddenly reappeared from the dead this October. Zombie laws, which have been around for decades, are outdated laws on the books for activities that are not seen as criminal today. However, they can still be used if police find a new reason to charge someone with them.
Section 365 of the Criminal Code is one of these zombie laws. It bans “pretending to practice witchcraft” to defraud people. Samantha Stevenson, a Milton, Ontario psychic, has been charged with extortion, fraud and “pretending to practice witchcraft” to more than $600,000 from over 20 clients.
Zombie laws that are finally being repealed and put to rest
Ironically, s. 365, like several other zombie Criminal Code sections, is about to be repealed by the federal government in Bill C-51. C-51 is just about to pass Third Reading in the Senate after being passed by the House of Commons, and will soon become law.
Most zombie laws are usually ignored as times have changed and police focus on more significant offences. C-51 will repeal these zombie laws:
Duelling. Section 71 says that challenging a person to fight a duel, or accepting the challenge, can lead to up to two years imprisonment. Duelling fell out of favour long ago, except in movies.
Issuing trading stamps. This section 427 offence dates to 1905, when government was concerned that the use of trading stamps — redeemable for discounted goods — was deceiving consumers. It quickly fell into disuse as trading stamps were popular. Now known as “coupons,” they are still popular today.
Publishing or selling crime comics. Section 163(1)(b) became law in 1948, when a British Columbia MP, Davie Fulton, blamed crime comics for influencing young people to commit crimes. This included a murder committed by two boys, 11 and 13, in Dawson Creek, B.C. Chapters-Indigo, or any store selling comics today, could easily be charged under this section; modern comics are much more graphic than those published in 1948.
Should the ‘fraudulent witchcraft’ charge have been laid?
Halton Regional Police Det.-Const. Sarah McCullagh, who investigated the case, believes it was right to charge Stevenson under s. 365.
McCullagh learned victims would come to Stevenson, seeking advice after at times of extreme vulnerability, perhaps being ill, in debt, or after a romantic relationship collapsed. Stevenson would tell a victim that there was bad energy or ghosts that were haunting them. The victims paid Stevenson to perform cleansing rituals to take away the bad spirits.
At first Stevenson would return the money. As time went by, Stevenson would ask for larger amounts to drive the bad spirits away again. This could be as much as $40,000. Eventually, she refused to return the money, claiming bad things would happen to victims if she did. Then she ignored repeated attempts to contact her and kept the money.
Halton Police laid the charge under s. 365. It was the most appropriate charge to lay, even though it is being repealed. “This one truly fit,” McCullagh said. “This witchcraft charge is because someone is fraudulently telling fortunes for money. This is the charge. It’s under the fraud portion of the Criminal Code.
“So this law is being repealed. It’s still in the Criminal Code.”
Time will tell if the Crown withdraws the charge, or the defence lawyer is able to get it dropped because it is being repealed.
Some zombie laws will still haunt us
Bill C-51 will not remove all the zombie offences from the Criminal Code. Some puzzling ones will remain:
It’s not likely that police will charge anyone with these offences, just as they didn’t charge people with duelling or selling crime comics. But until the federal government repeals these zombie offences, the possibility of someone being charged with one of them is always there should the right circumstances arise.