It will likely be several months before we learn if B.C.’s tough roadside punishments for drinking drivers will stand.
On Monday, the B.C. Court of Appeal was to hear a renewed challenge of the law that allows police to fine, suspend the licence and seize the car of motorists who fail roadside breath tests.
Alas, procedural delays mean we’ll have to wait to see if the judges agree with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which argues the law robs drivers of the presumption of innocence, punishing them harshly without having to prove their guilt in court.
Here’s the counter-argument to that: the roadside bans work.
If due process is being sacrificed, the trade-off has been safer roads and a laxative effect on B.C.’s constipated legal system.
Seldom has the imposition of a law had such an immediate and radical effect as did the arrival of the roadside penalties in 2010, the threat of swift, certain punishment modifying public behaviour. Bars and restaurants grew cobwebs, their business shifting to cold beer and wine stores as wary drivers decided to go teetotal until arriving home. Drunk-driving fatalities plunged 46 per cent in the first two years compared to the previous five — that’s 104 people who would otherwise be dead.
But now the law, already tweaked once, is under siege again, being labelled unconstitutional by the civil-liberties group, an intervenor in the appeal court review.
The group has a history of keeping us safe from the clutches of Big Brother. It ended Canada Customs’ ability to arbitrarily seize material it deemed pornographic, and sided with the Bountiful religious sect in fighting the law against polygamy. In 2008, the association successfully interceded on behalf of bus riders who didn’t like having their bags searched without cause on the way to Victoria’s Canada Day celebrations/Fête de la Régurgitation.
Pornographers, polygamists, puking rowdies and drunk drivers. Super. If the BCCLA makes us any safer, I’m buying a guard dog.
But what if they have a point? The changes made in 2010 shifted most drinking-driving cases into the same category as speeding, tailgating and other traffic offences in which the cop metes out punishment on the spot. Even if a driver asks for a review by the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles, the terms of the ban remain in effect.
History has plenty of examples of government rushing to fix real problems with flawed laws. “Experience should teach us to be most on guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said way back in 1928. “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”
Still, few people (other than defence lawyers) want to go back to the dysfunctional mess that pre-dated the roadside bans, when drawn-out, expensive drunk-driving files accounted for up to 40 per cent of the cases handled by prosecutors.
The old process might have delighted legal purists whose measure of success is the degree of rigour required by the system, but it sucked when it came to deterring and punishing drinking drivers in a just and timely fashion.
Under the new rules, police lay criminal charges only in the worst cases. During the first eight months the law was in effect, 2,298 criminal drunk-driving charges were forwarded to the Crown, compared to 7,887 in the comparable period a year earlier.
Throughout 2011, prosecutors approved an average of 149 drinking-driving charges each month. Then, in the six months after the courts struck down a part of the roadside-ban law, that number spiked to 426. The figure fell to 145 after the rejigged law was reinstated last summer.
While the number of criminal cases has plunged, the overall number of drivers being punished has risen — a total of 43,157 roadside bans were issued from September 2010 through this January. That includes 27,031 people given 90-day bans for blowing a “fail” or refusing to blow. Police say the increase reflects basic logistics; they can catch four drinking drivers and hit them with roadside bans in the time it takes to process one criminal charge.
Now we wait for the court to decide if the end justifies the means.
© Copyright 2013