The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld the B.C. government’s right to pass tough drinking and driving laws that allow police to impound vehicles and impose immediate roadside driving suspensions.
In a ruling released Friday, the court recognized that provinces play a key role in keeping highways safe and preventing deaths by getting dangerous drivers off the roads.
The court said roadside suspensions and associated penalties do not violate a person’s right to be presumed innocent until found guilty in court. In B.C., a driver who blows a “fail” on a roadside screening device is prohibited from driving for three months and faces impoundment fees and other costs.
“While a 90-day suspension is a meaningful consequence for a licensing violation, and the approximately $4,000 in possible costs and penalties are significant, they are not sufficient to engage the fair-trial rights” in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the court said.
Justice Minister Suzanne Anton said the decision confirms the “overall structure” of B.C.’s laws to keep highways safe.
“That was key and I’m very happy about that,” she said. “It means that our program can continue.”
The court did find that the 2010 version of B.C.’s drunk driving laws violated a person’s rights, given concerns about the reliability of roadside screening tests and a driver’s inability to challenge the accuracy of the results.
“The serious consequences of a driver registering a ‘fail,’ combined with an inability to challenge the basis on which these consequences are imposed, render the [automatic roadside prohibition] scheme unreasonable,” the court said.
Anton, however, said the government fixed those problems by passing new legislation in 2012. A driver now has a right to a second test as well as expanded grounds to challenge a roadside prohibition.
“I’m confident that the law, as it’s currently written, satisfies the concerns that they expressed about the older version of the law,” she said.
Victoria lawyer Jeremy Carr, who successfully challenged the original legislation, said the Supreme Court of Canada decision confirms that the 2010 law was unconstitutional.
“It doesn’t change anything, of course, because the government has brought in new legislation,” he said. “So we will be — now that we have this decision — taking this and proceeding on arguing that the new legislation is also, in our opinion, unconstitutional.”
Carr said the new legislation still doesn’t go far enough in protecting an individual’s rights.
He said the two sides still have to argue the issue of costs and damages. “A lot of people lost their employment, lost their vehicles and then that was for something that was deemed unconstitutional,” he said.
“So we think there should be more than just, ‘You get your court costs back.’ ”
The government estimates that immediate roadside prohibitions have saved 260 lives by deterring people from drinking and driving.
“It’s a very significant law for us. It’s the toughest in the country and it’s very effective,” Anton said. “It’s keeping our highways safe and it’s keeping families from losing loved ones due to drinking drivers.”