Province confident drunk driving rules will avoid legal pitfalls

Alberta’s justice minister says it’s full steam ahead for the government’s drunk-driving bill despite a court ruling striking down parts of similar legislation in British Columbia.

EDMONTON — Alberta’s justice minister says it’s full steam ahead for the government’s drunk-driving bill despite a court ruling striking down parts of similar legislation in British Columbia.

Verlyn Olson says proposed changes to Alberta’s Traffic Safety Act are different from the ones rejected Wednesday by the B.C. Supreme Court.

“We were very careful to watch what was happening in B.C.,” Olson said.

“We understood there were concerns there. We addressed those concerns and we feel very comfortable that our legislation does not have the same kinds of problems.”

Bill 26, expected to pass third and final reading in the Alberta legislature Thursday, piggybacks on a similar law passed last year in B.C. to deliver stiff administrative penalties to stop people from drinking and driving.

Both pieces of legislation go after drivers in two categories: those who drive over the Criminal Code limit of .08 blood alcohol content and those who are not criminally drunk but are in the impaired grey zone between .05 and .08.

B.C. drivers who are pulled over by police and blow over the legal limit in a roadside screening have their driver’s licences suspended immediately for three months. They also have their cars impounded for a month, get fined $500 and must pay to take a responsible driver course. Total fees are estimated at $4,000.

Drivers must also blow into a breathalyzer to confirm the roadside reading for a criminal charge to be laid. The roadside devices are not considered dependable enough to be used as evidence in court.

B.C. Justice Jon Sigurdson ruled in a test case that the roadside devices — and their inadmissibility in court— are sticking points.

Sigurdson said the province is using the roadside screenings as evidence to pile onerous fees and suspensions onto a Criminal Code charge before that charge is even laid. He suggested drivers are being penalized as if there were Criminal Code charges — but without the required charter safeguards.

“The 90-day licence suspension as well as significant penalties and costs are imposed on motorists who allegedly blow over .08, without those persons being able to meaningfully challenge the results,” said Sigurdson.

Alberta justice officials said their proposed legislation takes pains to make sure that any sanctions piled on top of a drunk-driving charge are based on legally admissible evidence.

Drivers who blow over .08 during a roadside screening would not face any sanctions from the province until results were confirmed on a breathalyzer and a Criminal Code charge was laid.

Once drivers are charged, however, the sanctions would be far more severe than in B.C. They would lose their driver’s licence until the case is resolved in court — a process that could take months or even years.

Opponents say that undercuts the presumption of innocence. They also point out that drivers who rely on their vehicles for a living would probably lose their jobs if they had to wait two years for trial.

Olson has said reducing drunk-driving deaths and injuries takes precedence.

Denise Dubyk, national president for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, praised the bill.

“It is a serious crime. It’s something that can be changed, and this government is going to change it,” she said.

NDP Leader Brian Mason said his party still has concerns about the proposal not adequately targeting those who cause most of carnage.

“A lot of the deaths and injuries due to alcohol-related driving are by people who are repeat or chronic drunk drivers over .08. Those are the things that need to be addressed,” said Mason.

Raj Sherman, leader of the Alberta Liberals, said the bill presumes guilt at the roadside and suggested there’s no need for the government to pass it in just eight legislature sitting days.

“You’ve got to think about it before you pass the law and rush it through before Christmas.”