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Impaired penalty review prompts B.C. to grant penalty breaks 1,137 drivers

VICTORIA - More than 1,100 British Columbia motorists caught up in tougher drunk driving rules before part of the law was found unconstitutional will have some of their punishments overturned, but their drunk driving penalty still sticks.

VICTORIA - More than 1,100 British Columbia motorists caught up in tougher drunk driving rules before part of the law was found unconstitutional will have some of their punishments overturned, but their drunk driving penalty still sticks.

The Justice Ministry confirmed Friday at least 1,137 motorists who were required to attend and pay for driver education programs and install ignition-lock systems in their vehicles after failing roadside impaired driving tests no longer need to take those actions — and up to 400 drivers may be in line for refunds.

The two programs add up to a cost of about $2,600.

The responsible driver education program costs $880, plus taxes and the ignition interlock system, which disables a vehicle if alcohol is detected, costs about $1,700 annually.

Last month, the Justice Ministry said the Office of the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles was reviewing some of the penalties for about 1,200 motorists who were handed immediate roadside prohibitions during a three-week period in November 2011 just before the B.C. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional part of the impaired driving law.

Legal challenges on behalf of 17 of those 1,200 motorists prompted the review and resulted in the decision to overturn the education and interlock ignition penalties.

Stephanie Melvin, deputy superintendent of motor vehicles, said her office decided that in fairness to the 1,137 motorists whose cases occurred during the three-week November 2011 time frame they should have their driver education penalties overturned, but not their impaired driving penalties.

"We got together all of the cases that this might apply to, did our review of them and found that it wouldn't be fair to continue to refer those people to the programs," she said. "Fortunately, most of the people had not yet enrolled in the responsible driver program or had the ignition interlock installed in their vehicles."

Melvin would not fully elaborate on the process that led to the decision.

"There were some very strong arguments in the petitions that led us to believe it wouldn't be fair to keep these drivers referred to the remedial programs," she said.

Vancouver lawyer Paul Doroshenko said he represented the majority of the 17 people who challenged the decision to send them to driver education and interlock programs.

Doroshenko said the Motor Vehicle Act leaves no room for discretion and forces every driver into the education and interlock programs without a review of their individual driving records or hearings on their behalf.

Melvin said her office considers the driver's five-year driving record before making a decision to refer the person to a remedial program. She said her office is also open to hearing submissions from the motorists.

The Motor Vehicle Act states motorists will be required to attend remedial education courses and install the ignition interlock device, if in the opinion of the motor vehicle superintendent, the driver's record in unsatisfactory.

Doroshenko said he has clients whose driving record has been incident free for years except for the failure of the roadside impaired driving test and they were still sent letters to attend the remedial courses and interlock programs.

He said he is now considering mounting test cases from several of the 35,000 motorists who were sent to the courses and forced to install interlock programs since September 2010 when the law was introduced.

"If everybody who's got an immediate roadside prohibition has to do it, then it wouldn't be discretionary," Doroshenko said.

Last May, the government amended the impaired driving law in order to strengthen the rights of accused impaired drivers to challenge roadside screening tests and appeal immediate roadside prohibitions.

The amended law was in response to the November 2011 B.C. Supreme Court ruling that struck down portions of the impaired driving law as unconstitutional.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Jon Sigurdson ruled that penalties for drivers were too serious for the law to have no adequate appeal system.

The amended law required police to inform drivers of their right to challenge their first roadside screening test by requesting a second test on a different machine. Accused drivers were also granted more power to appeal and seek reviews through the Office of the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles.

Justice Minister Shirley Bond said in a statement last month that the government will stick to its impaired driving penalty program that has saved as many as 104 lives since Sept. 2010.