Alexa Middelaer is obviously the poster child for B.C.’s impaired-driving regime. The four-year-old was killed in heartbreaking circumstances in 2008.
Her name became directly associated with the restructuring of impaired-driving laws as a direct result of her parents’ efforts. They launched a successful public campaign to force change. The overhaul took effect in 2010 and is known in some quarters as Alexa’s law.
It was introduced while the case against the driver who ran over the little girl was still working its way through the courts. And the story of that process makes it clear that it’s Alexa’s law in more ways than one.
It’s not just that an innocent little girl was killed while feeding a horse beside a fence off the side of the road. It’s that the subsequent prosecution of the case illustrated how tortuously long, complicated and expensive it can be to secure convictions and impose penalties on impaired drivers.
The essential point of the overhaul was to move away from the courts entirely. So the change effectively decriminalized impaired driving. Not in the sense that it relaxes the government’s approach. It’s more that the authorities can bring down severe arbitrary consequences on suspects without having to bother with the overloaded, balky court system.
Drunk driving can be handled for the most part by police and the superintendent of motor vehicles now, with automatic penalties and a limited appeal process. The system can impose thousands of dollars worth of fines and impounding fees, levy suspensions and require expensive interlock ignition systems in just weeks.
Contrast that with what happened to Carol Berner, the woman who ran over Alexa Middelaer. It happened in May 2008 in Delta.
By the first anniversary of the death, mother Laurel Middelaer was publicly forecasting that people tracking the case would see “the ridiculously high burden of proof required ... the lengthy amount of time that it takes to bring this about, the lack of sentencing and the overriding notion that it’s OK for people not to take responsibility for their actions.”
Berner got a 24-hour suspension immediately. After that, she was allowed to keep her licence as the court process commenced, although she reportedly chose not to drive. After she pleaded not guilty, it took two years for her case to get to court.
It was a complicated month-long trial. One of the oddities was that Berner never blew over .08. She registered a fail reading on the screening device, but was under the limit when the breathalyzer was administered hours later.
She admitted to drinking some wine. But police staged an elaborate sting operation months after the fatality. Undercover police befriended her and eventually testified that she admitted to three glasses of wine.
That was part of the evidence that resulted in a conviction, in July 2010. She was sentenced that November to 30 months in jail, and banned from driving for five years.
She appealed the conviction and the sentence two weeks later and was granted bail. The appeal was heard in 2011 and dismissed in November 2012. Berner sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. The court declined to hear the case in March 2013, which marked the merciful end of the line as far as process is concerned.
She started serving her sentence and by the conventional standards of parole eligibility, might be finished or near the end of it by now.
Father Michael Middelaer made the harrowing observation on the day the highest court declined the case that the process had taken five years, longer than his daughter had lived.
It was Alexa’s death that galvanized her parents to campaign for the change. The long, grinding process against the driver validated the need for the change.
The trade-offs are still being assessed. Drunk drivers are processed confidentially, so there’s no public record to rely on. People who contest the charges have very limited rights to appeal.
But the new system has processed 60,000 cases in the last three years and the 52 per cent drop in fatalities seems to be winning the day.