October 19, 2015
The Supreme Court of Canada has recently ruled how much provinces can punish their drunk drivers — striking a balance between keeping roads safe, and presuming the innocence of alleged drunk drivers.
The ruling came about in response to British Columbia’s law against drunk drivers, which is the strictest in the country. There, roadside breath tests allow for police to suspend driver’s licences for 90 days and issue fines of approximately $4,000.
It was argued that B.C.’s penalties fall under criminal law, which is legally problematic because according to the Canadian constitution, only the federal government possesses the authority to exercise criminal law.
Rather than following the Criminal Code to charge drivers who have a blood-alcohol content of over 0.08, B.C. has, for the most part, been using a law it drafted in 2010. This law punishes drunk drivers immediately, resulting in reduced costs to both policing and judicial systems. However, the province does not use this law in extreme cases that involve repeat offenders, or situations when someone is injured or killed.
All provinces have their own rules for drinking and driving beyond what is stipulated in the Criminal Code. In B.C, any driver that has a blood-alcohol content between .05 to 0.08 is considered in the “warn” range, and can have their license immediately suspended for 3, 7, or 30 days, depending on if it is a first-time offence or if the driver is a repeat offender. Any driver who has a blood-alcohol content of above 0.08 faces a 90-day suspension.
The Supreme Court ruled that provinces have the right to do what it takes to keep their roads safe and prevent people from driving drunk. However, the Court imposed limits on provinces’ power and acknowledged that since the B.C. rules run the risk of inadvertently punishing innocent people, drivers can defend themselves against the province’s strict penalties. The Court acknowledged that B.C’s roadside test isn’t as reliable as the breath analysis used in criminal cases.
The ruling will hopefully strike a balance between keeping roads safe and deterring drunk driving, and presuming the innocence of alleged drunk drivers. B.C. had faced criticism for their drunk-driving laws because by punishing outside of courtrooms, the province could be considered to have been preventing alleged drunk drivers from exercising their full rights. Yet many put forth the compelling argument that B.C. has a moral responsibility to keep roads safe and take whatever action necessary punish drunk drivers — indeed, the province claims their law has saved 260 lives.
For more on this story, visit The Globe and Mail.
Featured image source: Toronto Star