Toronto police officers stop motorists during a RIDE program spot-check

A spokesperson for Alberta’s department of justice said no final decisions have been made in that province about changing its policies for penalizing drunk driving — not so reassuring for those who fear Alberta will move towards decriminalization.

We don’t know if the United Conservative Party will adopt an administrative penalty system but there are plenty of people who hope it doesn’t, including criminal defence lawyers. A switch would probably decrease business for them (something they don’t emphasize in public statements), and it would certainly decrease the constitutional protections enjoyed by some of their would-be clients (something they do mention frequently to reporters).

The benefits of largely decriminalizing drunk driving are difficult to quantify. But evidence from British Columbia, which has for about a decade been using a system that allows police officers the discretion to apply roadside administrative penalties instead of issuing criminal charges to offenders, is promising.

A 2013 University of Victoria academic paper reported a statistically significant decrease in alcohol-related car crashes in the year following the change, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Canada CEO Andrew Murie told the Toronto Star recently that there has been a 50 per cent decrease in deaths connected to alcohol in B.C. since the new policy took effect.

But isn’t it counterintuitive that relaxing the severity of penalties for unsafe behaviour would increase overall safety?

Essentially it is … yet in this case it also makes a degree of sense.

If the provincial criminal courts are so clogged up that drunk-driving cases take ages to get through the system — and often they are — criminal charges aren’t as much of a deterrent as you’d think they’d be. Meanwhile, if administrative penalties can be applied almost immediately — which often they can — the consequences carry less overall stigma but enough quick and direct sting to discourage future drunk driving. Presumably, that’s why MADD — an organization that has proven itself to be at times hysterically punitive about potential impaired driving — has supported partial decriminalization. Administrative penalties can cost drivers several thousands of dollars, several days of lost time, and the infinite aggravation of dealing with impound fees and licence reinstatement forms, which is more than most people can afford.

It’s obvious that decriminalizing drunk driving simply makes things a lot easier on the government, as well, which should raise some red flags. Everyone wants to deter dangerous driving, and partial decriminalization seems to do so by, ironically, making the punishment for driving under the influence seem faster, more severe, and more certain. But generally intensifying potential government punishment calls for greater protection of citizens — safeguards such as the presumption of innocence and the right to appeal — not less. Convenience and cost-savings are always important. At the same time, they’re never important enough to make changes that create a real risk of government robbing innocent people of their liberty.

A lot of people, including many relatives of victims of drunk drivers, tend to oppose partial decriminalization of drunk driving on moral grounds. They’re right in the sense that decriminalization should not lessen the punishment for a drunk driver who injures or kills another person.

Fortunately, reasonable partial decriminalization schemes don’t do this, at least not explicitly.

Usually, the option to forego criminal charges is offered for cases in which a first-time drunk driver has been pulled over and failed a breathalyzer, not in cases where a drunk driver has crashed, hit someone, or been caught driving drunk more than once. Any changes Alberta made would be likely to follow such guidelines.

Yet it’s a reasonable worry that by handing over the discretion to make the decision about criminal charges (and therefore about punishment) to a police officer at roadside, you take away some of the consistency and fairness that are otherwise imposed with the involvement in this decision of the Crown, and eventually, a court. It’s far quicker and involves less paperwork to forego criminal charges. Police officers wouldn’t be human if they didn’t take that into account when standing by the side of the highway with a drunk driver, deciding what to do. We may not want these incentives to dictate who gets charged with what.

“(An administrative law system for drunk driving) becomes essentially a massive money grab that hurts the poorest in society the most,” said Calgary criminal defence lawyer Greg Dunn.

As self-serving as the statement is for someone who represents criminally charged drunk drivers, he’s probably right. Does being an effective deterrent to impaired driving outweigh such a major flaw?

Source: National Post


Last updated on: 2020-04-25 | Link to this post