Constitutional challenge of new law scheduled for court in December

Nearly 7,000 drivers’ licences were suspended and more than 5,400 vehicles were seized in the first six months under Alberta’s tougher new impaired driving law, which took effect a year ago, recently released statistics show.

Fatal crashes in which alcohol was a factor also declined between July and December 2012, compared to the five-year average for those same months. There were 33 alcohol-related traffic deaths last year, down 46 per cent from the 2007-11 average of 62, according to the government numbers.

It’s too soon to declare victory, but preliminary figures since the legislation changed seem promising, Alberta Justice Minister Jonathan Denis said Tuesday.

“This is a made-in-Alberta solution we’ve developed and the intent was obviously to bring down the number of injuries and fatalities caused by drunk drivers,” Denis said. “It has never been the intent to restrict an individual from having a beer after work. Those are not the people that we’re targeting.”

Since July 1, 2012, drivers with a blood-alcohol level of .08 or more have their vehicles seized for three days and their driver’s licence suspended until their case is resolved in court. Previously, those drivers faced a 24-hour licence suspension with a 21-day grace period, then a 90-day licence suspension. Their vehicles were not seized.

A total of 4,434 suspensions were issued in that category in July through December last year, up from 4,082 in 2011. A total of 3,385 vehicles were seized last year.

Since Sept. 1, motorists who blow between .05 and .08 on a breathalyzer — which is not a criminal offence — can have their licence suspended for three days and their vehicle seized for three days for a first offence. Previously, the penalty was a 24-hour licence suspension.

From Sept. 1 through December 2012, 910 suspensions and 770 vehicle seizures were issued for blowing over .05.

New drivers, who are not allowed any alcohol in their systems, received 719 licence suspensions and 662 vehicle seizures.

Civil liberties advocates have criticized the sanctions for punishing people who haven’t been convicted of crimes.

Lawyer Fred Kozak is involved in a constitutional challenge of that aspect of the new law in Court of Queen’s Bench this December. The challenge claims automatic licence suspensions are unconstitutional because they violate the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

“Is it fair to punish people prior to their trial?” Kozak said. “You shouldn’t be punished while you’re still presumed to be innocent.”

Two of four test cases Kozak is monitoring in criminal court received automatic licence suspensions, then had charges under the new legislation withdrawn by the Crown. A third accused was acquitted last month. The fourth case, for a woman whose licence has already been suspended for 13 months, is scheduled to proceed in September, he said.

The automatic licence suspensions and vehicle seizures could prompt people to improperly plead guilty to speed up the process instead of waiting for a trial, said Linda McKay-Panos, executive director with the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre.

“It may be that there’s faulty evidence or the (breathalyzer) machine’s not working properly or there’s a problem,” she said. “It will probably encourage a lot of people to plead guilty because they want their car back or they want the time that they’re suspended to start right away.”

The decline in alcohol-related fatalities isn’t very telling because it compares July to December 2012 with a five-year average, she said. The numbers could fluctuate drastically year to year, she said. “It should be individual year comparisons.”

The government continues to gather and monitor data and recognizes that many variables affect the statistics, such as different levels of traffic enforcement from year to year and between police jurisdictions, Alberta Transportation spokesperson Donna Babchishin said.

“Our interest is in the long-term trends ... but we fully expect them to decline over time,” she said. “Other jurisdictions have shown us ... when you implement immediate consequences at the .05 level that you see fatalities on your roads go down over time.”

Similar rules have become standard internationally in countries such as Australia, Germany and France, Denis said.

Predictions that Alberta’s hospitality industry would be financially hurt by the changes have not materialized, Denis said.

Source: Edmonton Journal


Last updated on: 2013-07-31 | Link to this post