Drunk-driving law is further erosion of our Charter rights
Under our current circumstances, it’s easy to see the appeal of a proposal that saves Alberta money and also helps clear some of the backlogs in our courts. However, when it comes to a proposal that threatens some fairly basic principles in our justice system, we should hold it to a much higher standard than that.
The Alberta government last week tabled Bill 21, which makes some significant changes in how we deal with accused drunk drivers. Rather than be charged criminally, first-time offenders will immediately face a 30-day vehicle seizure, a three-month licence suspension, a $1,000 fine and a 12-month mandatory education program.
Now, that might seem like a reasonable set of consequences for a first-time offender. But being an “offender” implies guilt, and under our system an accused is innocent until proven guilty. Under this proposed regime, however, the guilt is imposed at the point where the criminal charge would normally have been. We should be very apprehensive about such an approach.
The Alberta government is largely copying this model from our neighbours to the west. In fact, Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer claims this has saved lives in B.C., touting a 54 per cent drop in alcohol-related fatalities between 2011 and 2018.
What a splendid and convenient coincidence that an approach meant to save money and reduce the burden on the courts also happens to improve safety. This claim doesn’t negate the concerns over due process, but it’s a claim that deserves greater scrutiny.
First and foremost is the fact that B.C.’S data on alcohol-related fatalities is rather problematic.
For example, the last attempt by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation to study the problem in Canada was stymied by the fact that “the B.C. Coroners Service has not provided alcohol … test results for individuals involved in fatal crashes since 2010.” The last major report from the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators came with the disclaimer that “coroner data from British Columbia were not available.”
It should also be noted that impaired driving has been trending downward over both the last two decades.
If we use the government’s choice of 2011 as a starting point, for example, we see dramatic drops in both Manitoba and Quebec in alcohol-related fatalities (43 and 45 per cent, respectively, between 2011 and 2015).
Clearly, there are many factors that explain the decline in various provinces.
Therefore, we should not take it as an established fact that Bill 21 is going to save lives. It may indeed save the province money, but that’s a much flimsier basis for justifying this erosion of civil liberties.
Those who have these penalties imposed upon them through the bill’s Immediate Roadside Sanctions system do have some recourse. They have seven days to appeal to a panel of adjudicators to be known as “Saferoads AB.” This process is to take no more than 30 days.
Let’s be clear, though, this is not a court of law. This is an approach tantamount to “guilty until proven innocent.” It’s an unfair shifting of the state’s burden of proof in criminal matters.
Let’s also not forget that we already have the ability for police to administer breathalyzer tests to any motorist.
The requirement of reasonable suspicion of alcohol consumption was eliminated by Ottawa a year and a half ago.
So now we have an erosion of Section 8 Charter rights (the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure) potentially coupled with an erosion of Section 7 Charter rights (the right to know the case against you and to put forward a defence) and an erosion of Section 11 Charter rights (the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty).
The government is right to be concerned about the problem of impaired driving, but this is going too far — especially since the evidence of the public safety benefits of this new law is so shaky.