David Marsden: Police’s roadside breath tests leave a bad taste

Red Deer RCMP have said that every motorist they stop is required to submit to an alcohol breath test.

Citizens share police’s concern with getting drunk drivers off the road, but such a policy is a dangerous overreach, treating every person behind the wheel of a vehicle as though they are guilty of a crime.

The law used to require that police had reasonable suspicion that a driver was impaired. An officer would have to detect the odour of alcohol, the presence of slurred speech, or glassy eyes, before demanding a breath sample.

That threshold was lowered by the federal government in 2018 to allow police to demand a test from any driver they lawfully pull over.

Now, all they require to intrude into our everyday lives is to observe a minor transgression on the road, such as failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign.

ALSO READ: David Marsden: Drugs don’t belong in prisons

POLL: Do you support the RCMP’s policy of demanding a breath sample from every driver they stop?

Police are given broad discretion in determining what is deemed to be suspicious behaviour, or what constitutes an offence, so it’s safe to say that any driver can be pulled over and forced to prove sobriety.

The very foundation of our society is the presumption of innocence and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. The policy being carried out by police, and empowered by the Trudeau government, runs roughshod over such cherished rights.

As much as we wish to clear our roads of impaired drivers, we shouldn’t so readily surrender the underpinnings of a free society.

We despise bank robbers, for instance, but we don’t see police patting patrons down as they go into a financial institution to make a withdrawal. We first demand evidence that a crime is likely to be committed.

We have even greater contempt for those who abuse their domestic partners, but it’s not common practice for police to knock on doors in the absence of signs of conflict.

Yes, it’s the police’s job to enforce the law, but when they treat law-abiding citizens as lawbreakers, they risk pulling at the fabric that holds a community together.

They risk raising questions in the public’s mind about whose interest is being served.

Rural residents, for example, express concerns that the RCMP is unable to respond quickly enough to crimes being committed on acreages. Some people in Red Deer feel the police haven’t got a grip on crime in the city’s core, which is frequented by many users of illicit drugs.

But the police apparently have time to subject every driver to a breath test.

It’s one thing to have the power to take tests from motorists who are stopped. It’s another thing to overzealously seize advantage of poorly crafted legislation at every opportunity.

“It’s very non-invasive. It’s generally only 45 seconds to a minute more than it would have been if I had just conducted a regular stop before this regulation,” says the sergeant in charge of the Red Deer detachment’s traffic section.

That may be. But just because it doesn’t take long to erode our rights doesn’t mean we should be so quick to succumb to threats on our liberty.

Supporters of the breath test policy say, ‘if you don’t have anything to hide, what’s the problem?’

We’ll see what these people say when the police demand to look in their garage or under their beds, all without cause or provocation.

David Marsden is managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate

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