Anger prompting tougher sentences for drunk driviers
Society’s love affair with alcohol is enabling the impaired driving problem, says Red Deer Crown prosecutor Anders Quist.
“Too many in society are in love with alcohol. We are very permissive with it, and once people get intoxicated, bad judgment leads them to drink and drive,” said Quist, who has prosecuted many drunk drivers over the years, including assisting with the case against Chad Mitchell Olsen, who killed Red Deer parents Brad and Krista Howe.
The cases he works on can be tough to sit through for spectators in the courtroom. They involve heart-rending victim impact statements from relatives who face the rest of their lives without their beloved sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mother and fathers.
But after a while, there tends to be a certain sameness about drunk driving cases because the same story is repeated again and again.
Quist said the accused tends to be a motorist — either an alcoholic or a social drinker — who gambled on “sneaking home” after drinking without getting caught by police. Instead, he or she failed monumentally — with life-altering results.
In other words, the cases are about “people who make selfish decisions to the detriment of others,” said Quist.
He says has been touched by several cases where drivers have been charged with impaired driving causing death. He was particularly moved by the case involving the Howes because their five children were left orphans.
Quist is not among those who would equate a drunk driving death with murder. Clearly, when drunks leave a house party or bar, they have no intent to harm anyone, he said.
“But the dead are just as dead,” added the prosecutor, who is among those who would like to see tougher rules against drunk driving — and he believes Alberta is going in the right direction with new provincial licence suspensions and three-day vehicle seizures levied against people driving close to the legal limit.
Although Canada’s Criminal Code sets .08 (80 mg of blood alcohol, per 100 ml of blood) as the impairment level for motorists, many European countries have a far lower legal tolerance.
Considering Sweden has a blood alcohol level at .02, Alberta’s new ability to suspend licences of those with readings between .05 and .08 is not unreasonable, said Quist.
“Just because you are testing at 50 (mg or .05) doesn’t mean it’s safe to drive.” In fact, he noted that scientists who tested for impairment had originally suggested the .05 level as the legal limit, but politicians decided to cut drivers more slack.
Since impairment occurs gradually, it’s often hard to gauge at which particular point someone is sober enough to drive and at which point it’s dangerous, said Quist.
He noted that studies have shown that impaired drivers who can get home without incident when nothing distracts them, will crash their vehicle if their attention is momentarily diverted from the road by unforeseen circumstances, including a companion’s chit-chat, or turning a radio dial.
“They aren’t good at multitasking.”
They also aren’t good at judging their own degree of intoxication, so if nothing else, Quist hopes that Alberta’s new licence suspensions for people driving close to the legal limit will make more people stop gambling that their blood alcohol levels will beat the RCMP’s breath analysis equipment. People heading to the bars will hopefully either have a designated driver take them home, or catch a cab.
He noted the same lower .05 tolerances rules in B.C. cut impaired driving crashes by 46 per cent.
Longer jail sentences?
When somebody drives while impaired and kills someone, it is life-altering for everyone involved. Quist said the prevailing view is that motorists who accidentally take someone’s life tend to never drink and drive again.
But the public still wants the courts to send a strong message about the severity of this crime through longer jail sentences against offenders.
Public outrage against the two-year, three-month sentence originally given to Olsen led to his sentence being raised to three and a half years on appeal.
The appeal court couldn’t have raised the sentence higher, because three and a half years was what the Crown had asked for, said Quist. He noted that maximum sentences are reserved for the very worst repeat offenders. Olsen was a first-time criminal offender, who had previously only racked up traffic tickets.
The Crown prosecutor would like the public to understand that half of the law is based on the written Criminal Code and half is based on past court cases and precedence. In other words, he could not have asked for a 10-year sentence for Olsen when all past Alberta court cases of a similar nature yielded jail sentences in the under four year range.
But Quist noted that Ontario courts have started to impose longer jail times for drunk drivers, who are now getting seven or eight year sentences.
Quist believes that public demand for stronger punishment is prompting other courts, including Alberta’s, to also move in Ontario’s direction. He recalled that members of the Alberta Court of Appeal had stated, upon reviewing the Olsen case, that they would like to look more towards the Ontario precedence in future.
Parole as a transition period
Nothing ignites public outrage faster than hearing that an impaired driver who killed another person was released on parole after spending less than half of his jail sentence behind bars. Olsen was released on parole after spending 16 months in prison.
Quist said he’s not familiar with the parameters the National Parole Board must work under when considering this and other releases. The length of time convicts spend behind bars is based on their behaviour, willingness to co-operate, and other factors.
It’s important to realize that somebody’s parole cannot be extended beyond the original jail sentence — so Quist believes it’s safer for society if offenders can transition gradually towards regaining their full freedom.
Parole offers a chance to have their behaviour overseen by a parole officer before the offenders are completely released into society again. Parole officers can ensure they live up to conditions of their release — for example, not drinking and driving.
“I would think it was better for them not to go from Point A to Point Z” without some supervision, he added.