Alberta high court strikes down impaired driving law

Taking away the licences of drivers who haven’t been found guilty violates their Charter rights

EDMONTON — Alberta’s highest court has struck down a section of the province’s Traffic Safety Act that allows authorities to suspend the licences of suspected drunk drivers until their cases are resolved in court.

The Alberta Court of Appeal says taking away the licences of drivers who haven’t been found guilty violates their charter rights.

The court said in a split ruling released Thursday that the law as it stands imposes sanctions as soon as a criminal charge is laid “without regard to the presumption of innocence.”

Lawyer Nate Whitling had argued in an appeal filed by four individuals that a driver waiting to be tried on impaired driving charges has to do without a licence for many months because of a backlog in the courts.

“It’s going to last eight, nine, 10 months while you wait for your trial date,” he said after the decision. “That pressures an accused person to plead guilty even if they’re innocent. And the Court of Appeal was particularly concerned about that aspect of the law.”

Whitling pointed to Alberta’s own data to help make his case.

“The government’s own statistics that they relied on in enacting this law recognized that about 22 per cent of the people who are actually charged with impaired driving are found not guilty.

“This law pressured those people to plead guilty as well, and that’s why it’s contrary to the charter.”

The ruling puts everything on hold for a year, so nothing will change for now. It’s expected the province will either appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court of Canada or rewrite the law.

The appeal was filed against the Alberta Transportation Safety Board, the province’s attorney general and the registrar of Motor Vehicle Services.

The appeal challenged the constitutionality of the law’s mandatory roadside suspension of operator’s licences for anyone charged with an alcohol-related driving offence.

In the decision, Justice Frans Slatter said the violation of an accused driver’s fundamental constitutional rights “is clear, broad and significantly deleterious.”

“The administrative licence suspension regime is … overbroad. It is clear that the automatic and universal nature of the regime will deprive the liberty of some drivers who are innocent-in-fact, or who are not guilty.”

One of the three Appeal Court judges did not agree with the ruling.

“In my view, the lengthy licence suspensions that can result … may have serious effects on people’s lifestyle, but the effects do not fall within the category of true penal consequences,” wrote Justice Marina Paperny in a dissenting opinion.

“I would dismiss the appeal in its entirety.”

The British Columbia government also faced a challenge to its drunk-driving law after it was brought in. It imposes heavy fines, penalties and immediate roadside suspensions.

But the Supreme Court of Canada handed down a pair of judgments in October 2015 that upheld key portions of the law.

It ruled for one that the law as it stood in 2010 did not violate an individual’s charter right to the presumption of innocence. However, a majority of the court said the law violated the charter protection against unlawful search and seizure.

By the time the Supreme Court made its ruling, B.C. had already amended its law to address that point by allowing drivers who failed a roadside breath test to ask for a second test and to apply for a review of their driving prohibition.

(CHED, The Canadian Press)

The Canadian Press

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